There are many different public safety radio networks used by multiple first responder services today – fire, ambulance, police etc. In the US, each may have its own frequency (VHF or UHF) and dedicated handsets. Europe has adopted TETRA, a common standard similar to GSM. One problem with these specialist systems is that the relatively low volume of product means they are expensive and new features are developed slowly. Handsets can cost $3,000 yet provide basic voice and text only.
LTE (Long Term Evolution) has undoubtedly won the battle to become the world's 4th Generation radio access technology. It promises speeds of 100's of Mbit/s and includes many features to increase resilience, spectral efficiency and network performance. Small cells have been designed in from the outset, and will be a critical component providing the high speeds and capacity foreseen.
The first LTE small cells were developed independently from 3G products, and we have seen a number of new market entrants who had little or no involvement with earlier 3G femtocells. Chipset vendors such as Broadcom, TI, Fresscale and Cavium have been making great headway. Leading small cell vendors have included LTE in their roadmaps, but are cautious about bringing products to market too early while there remains strong demand for 3G.
The LTE system architecture differs from 3G, without mandating a small cell gateway. This puts more pressure on the core network, with every inter cell handover being handled directly by the core network. Some believe that for larger deployments, especially where indoor/residential is involved, a gateway will be required.
For some insight into what operators are thinking, I attended and reported on the Operator Mindshare session at LTE World Summit 2012, followed by the main LTE event itself.
We also looked at which vendors are developing LTE small cells.
The mobile industry seems to be trying its best to understand and establish the validity of Small Cell market forecasts. These vary in terms of timescale, size and technology. Further confusion arises by mixing the terms Femtocells and Small Cells.
We consider some of the reasons for the confusion and look at one way to clarify progress and map out the right road to follow.
Andy Sutton, EE, revealed some of the detailed strategy being used in their initial rollout of small cells as part of their wider 3G and LTE network deployment. This article is based on conference presentations and a webinar given over recent months. Andy reinforces how quickly data traffic can increase once LTE service is available, shares some details about end-to-end latency through their network and explains how today's "SuperCells" are paving the way for small cells in the future.
Nokia Solutions and Networks (NSN) recently announced their latest basestation product, an LTE only small cell aimed primarily at outdoor urban districts where traffic levels continue to grow rapidly. This is part of their Flexi Zone solution, aimed at sitting underneath an existing LTE macrocell layer (from NSN or another vendor), and meeting the high traffic demands through densification from large numbers of small cells.
We clarify the capabilities of the product, discuss why it's LTE only at this stage, and examine the reasoning behind a two-stage densification in urban areas.
Something interesting is happening here in the UK, which may be a forerunner of what could happen elsewhere. BT, the encumbent fixed network operator, bought some 2.6GHz spectrum in the LTE auction earlier this year. Having initially said they had no plans to launch their own retail mobile network, they are now changing their approach and announced they may do so within the next 12 months.
We look at the context of how the commercial makeup of mobile network operators are evolving and are now becoming three distinct components. Is this a trend that will continue and be adopted more widely, or is BT's move an indication of consolidation to come?