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LTE logoThe growing takeup of LTE, the new 4G radio technology, brings a major opportunity for a range of small cells. Last year saw major releases from both software and hardware components vendors, but there still seem to be relatively few generally available products today – will this change soon after forthcoming announcements made at Mobile World Congress?

Mainstream silicon vendors such as TI, Freescale and Qualcomm have all made major investments into LTE small cell chipsets while smaller niche players such as Mindspeed and DesignArt have also made significant progress. With Radisys claiming more than 20 software licence sales to LTE basestation vendors, there’s clearly a lot of activity and investment going on. We take a look at who has gone public on this so far.

We’ve tried to make a distinction between products which have been showcased, those where interoperability has been demonstrated, those in live network trials and those fully commercially available. This isn’t always quite so clear cut of course – you can declare your product to be GA (Generally Available) without it ever having been used in a real live network – but we’ll give these vendors the benefit of the doubt.

Don't read the listing order of products below as any indication of the relative state of maturity or availability.

Recent Announcements

Fujitsu recently announced their BroadOne residential LTE femtocell, demonstrating this unit at the CES show in January 2012. It will be GA at end Q2 2012, and there is a sales forecast of 1 million units by 2015. This 8 channel LTE residential femtocell is very similar in size and shape to many of today’s 3G femtocells, but is LTE only – not dual mode. It would require high speed broadband internet at home to be able to take full benefit of the technology, something that is more common in Japan and Korea today and growing elsewhere.

Belair Networks of Canada claims the world’s first combined LTE/3G/Wi-Fi small cell with product released in November 2011.

Powerwave, a DAS vendor, demonstrated an early LTE picocell at 4G World in October 2011.

Airvana, the mainstream CDMA femtocell supplier to Sprint, highlights the need for multi-mode (3G and LTE) small cells. It has selected Freescale as its chipset supplier and demonstrated this working with the Hitachi core network in September 2011.

SKT (South Korea Telecom) announced plans to develop their own LTE femtocell before the end of 2011 and deploy LTE "hot zones" to meet localised data traffic demand during 2012.

Airspan launched AirSynergy in August 2011, a combined LTE small cell with built-in out-of-band wireless backhaul. With a WiMAX heritage, this product is an evolution of their earlier WiMAX technology and combines a lot of functionality in the box. Only requiring a power source, these units can be physically installed in as little as 60 minutes.

Other progress

Airwalk, the CDMA small cell vendor, announced it would develop a commercial LTE picocell in March 2010, based on Mindspeed and Aricent technology. [It has since been acquired by Ubee and the small cell unit operates under the combined name of UbeeAirwalk]

We did see real products at trade shows a year ago but it’s 2012 now and there doesn’t appear to be any general availability announcement yet, so we can only suppose it’s imminent.

Ubiquisys selected Texas Instruments as their LTE chipset last year and have shown some product mockups. Their strategy (according to their website) is to provide LTE as an add-on to their existing 3G femtocell range, rather than completely standalone. 

ip.access have indicated that LTE small cells are on their roadmap, and will be supported alongside their existing 2G/3G solutions. Their recent round of funding may be partly used to invest in an LTE small cell.

NEC mention it on their website, but with scant information.

The four major Network Equipment Providers

The four major RAN equipment vendors (Ericsson, Huawei, Alcatel-Lucent, Nokia-Siemens) have all indicated the need for small cells as part of a mixed Heterogenous Network (HetNet), but have yet to release smaller sized LTE products as part of their portfolio. It’s not as straightforward as only offering LTE small cells though – a different architecture is also on offer.

Alcatel-Lucent launched lightRadio a year ago, which includes remote radio heads connected by fiber optic cable to a central controller – not quite the same architecture as an independent small cell. I have no reason to believe they won’t offer LTE small cells in the future, to accompany their strong portfolio of 3G small cells.

Nokia-Siemens announced LiquidRadio, a very similar concept (as well as name).

Anyone Missing?

The above list if far from exhaustive, especially of those actively developing LTE small cell products today. Our apologies for omitting or misrepresenting anyone who has commercial LTE small cell products on offer today. If you know of any, please comment below so we can update and correct the article.

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