Mobile World Congress 2016 – Small Cell Event Report

mwc logo 2016In the 21 years I’ve attended, the show has evolved into a comprehensive event, slickly organised and efficiently run. It’s still all about networking and meetings, rather than sit down presentations or award ceremonies. While small cells weren’t one of the featured three key themes, I was overwhelmed by the level of activity around them – especially for Enterprise, LAA/MuLTeFire and 3.5GHz.



Keynote not from an industry insider

It’s notable that the keynote speaker wasn’t an industry insider. Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook CEO) stole the headlines, envisaging bringing the benefits of the Internet to ever greater numbers rather than focussing purely on higher speeds for the privileged. Don’t be swayed too much by drones, balloons and other wacky technology – most of the world’s population lives within cellular coverage already and would use it. Early results from offering “Free Basic Internet”  in 30 countries have added 19 million customers and returned up to 30% profit to operators after many move on to pay for full data connectivity. Think of it like the “Freemium” business model of many Apps and software services on offer today. (Keynote highlights video 8 minutes)

Analyst John Strand comments that the GSMA had cleansed the conference agenda of anything controversial and that the organisation has lost political influence. The Mobile Connect project of a couple of years ago (using your SIM credentials to login to websites, similar to Facebook or Google+) seems to have been an outright failure. MWC remains the organisation's flagship, attracting 101,000 attendees and 2,200 exhibitors just focussed on meeting after meeting, with many senior people not ever leaving their stands. The couple of panel sessions I did attend were of comparatively limited value compared to 1:1 briefings.

I watched Hans Vestburg, CEO of Ericsson, opening keynote. He has done well by focussing and evolving the company to make the most of cellular, shedding handset, landline and other unrelated businesses. He’s positioning 5G as the next logical industry project and would quite like it to develop in the same way as previous generations. I’m not so convinced and think we might see considerable commercial and technical disruption. The short range of 5G (which uses very high frequencies) inevitably means lots of small cells, finally moving away from a macrocell dominated architecture. A surprise was to see AWS (Amazon Web Services) join him onstage – telcos running their services on AWS infrastructure would be a major psychological step but is no longer complete heresy – Verizon is actively selling off 48 cloud datacentres of its own for $2.5Billion.

Others commented to me that the traditional telecoms industry (and specifically the business side of network operators) simply isn’t being innovative enough. It’s become a drudgery of driving down cost and increasing capacity/speed. So perhaps it’s time to let innovation ignite by unleashing new business models and new vendors. Some new Small Cell technologies on show promised exactly that.

The three top themes of the show overall

The top themes of the event were 5G, Internet of Things and The Cloud

5G is still very hard to pin down. Requirements are very ambitious and conflicting (eg. Gigabit speeds, decade long battery life). Various demos exist with over 25Gbps speeds. The high frequencies used implicitly demand an architecture with lots of short range small cells connected by superfast backhaul or fronthaul. Some say there is more focus on connecting machines rather than people.

Internet of Things. There’s a mixed bag of radio technologies competing in this space. The cellular industry would quite like to use embedded SIMs and an optimised form of LTE but other wide area RF systems. SIGFOX, LORA, Wi-Fi variants including 802.11ax and low power schemes such as Bluetooth or Zigbee make this a complex topic without a clear single winner. Joe Madden expressed this well in an analogy with the automotive industry.

Cloud. The term has become so overloaded and abused it requires an extra layer of scrutiny to clarify what each new scheme is proposing. Topics covered everything from Big Data analytics, network management systems, gateways and even Small Cells as a service.

Topics of popular interest at the show included ever better Virtual Reality (who knows – maybe we won’t physically have to attend shows in the future). In the short term, strong interest in 360-degree videos (natively supported by YouTube, Facebook and Chrome browsers already) will fuel increasing data demands on networks. Samsung’s booth hosted a simulated roller coaster ride, with groups of delegates wearing virtual reality goggles (based on the new S7 phone) and sitting in a gallery of moveable seats. Soon you will be able to try this at home or (I dread to think) on the commute to work.

mwc16 virtual reality

LTE-U, LAA and MuLTeFire

There was no shortage of demos of these upcoming small cell technologies, aggregating LTE in licenced and unlicensed bands to add capacity. Qualcomm think LTE-U will be commercial in 2016, LAA in 2017 (using a 20MHz channel) with faster 40MHz channel to follow in 2018. These are downlink only, augmenting the existing LTE service in licenced spectrum. Verizon seems likely to be one of the first to deploy.

Multefire logo 200pxThe MuLTeFire Alliance, launched during the show, takes it a step further and allows a completely standalone LTE network to run in unlicensed spectrum. Derek Petersen, CTO Boingo, was very excited about the possibility of running a neutral host small cell network in venues which would seamlessly roam to all cellular networks. Alliance membership has strong vendor support from Nokia (who provide its chairman), Ericsson, Qualcomm, Intel, Spidercloud, Ruckus Wireless, CASA systems and others but I haven’t yet seen any network operator endorsement.

The most popular question at the show

Edgar Figuero, Wi-Fi Alliance chairman, pointed out that the most common question heard was “What’s the Wi-Fi password?” Sadly, this is a reflection that Passpoint has not been widely adopted by (home) network operators – arguably why should they, since it reduces their revenues. Shrikant Shenwai, WBA CEO, sees no technical barrier to deployment and told me it’s just a question of time. I think there is a much larger issue at stake around the business case in that Wi-Fi is perceived to be free. There’s also the question of Quality of Service where LTE should have an advantage and did work well onsite.

The above two issues feed through to a neutral host arrangement where enterprises and venues install and pay for a neutral host system, centrally managed by specialist aggregators who are directly linked into all the networks. I felt there was a groundswell of opinion that this was the direction the industry was headed, not necessarily led by the operators but many recognising this was inevitable.

The analyst team at Wireless 20/20 told me they have been extremely busy with Neutral Host consultancy since they were swamped at their Small Cells Americas workshop last November. Berge Ayvazian speaking at the Small Cell Forum stand below.

MWC16 Wireless 2020

Small Cells are Boring

The telecoms industry can be somewhat bi-polar. It loves hearing about the very latest technology, trialling and testing (and playing with it). But a strong conservative streak means that few want to be the first to risk deploying it, in case it all goes horribly wrong. Once proven and mainstream, then the industry can ramp up quickly and scale to very large volumes.

Alan Law, Chair of the Small Cell Forum would like us to believe that small cell technology is now very mature and has become mainstream. It's "crossed the chasm". Sure, there are new innovations such as LTE-U/LAA in the pipeline, but many are deploying today’s products in the field. Those hockey stick projections are no longer moving to the right each year. 400K Enterprise small cells were shipped during 2015, and a forecast of 1.5M for 2016 looks very attainable. The US and Chinese Enterprise markets are especially buoyant. Residential is no longer growing as fast, urban remains slow in the short term (mostly for logistic reasons), rural/remote is a small but important segment.

The Small Cell Forum stand hosted two days of presentations. Perhaps not as well attended as previous years (because people are so busy elsewhere), but you can view the presentations online already here (registration not required) and our own entitled "State of the Nation".

The Forum’s Release 6, published during the show, focussed on Enterprise, revisiting and updating Release 2 and adding new documents on Neutral Host and use of unlicenced spectrum. 

Radio Planning

-       Big three outdoor radio planning vendors continue to dominate and I see little shift in market share by number of operators between TEOCO (Aircom), Forsk and Infovista (Mentum + Aexio, rebranded VistaNEO). They are all expanding their scope and depth to include some SON functions, with TEOCO using their inhouse SCHEMA for 3G SON. Infovista see perceived subscriber performance measurement being more important than bare network KPIs. 

-       iBwave continue to dominate in-building planning systems of all types (DAS, Small Cell) and have now launched a Wi-Fi only version. Their system also documents building details, cable runs, access arrangements etc. and complements the existing outdoor-in planning tools above which all vendors seem to think is a good ecosystem and partnership. Benoit Fleury, VP Product Management, explained his perspective on the difference between Wi-Fi and cellular planning approaches.

Ranplan, a relatively new entrant to indoor planning, has partnered with Ascom. Graham Peel, CEO, sees this as a major route to market with a much larger sales team working on his behalf.

XCellAir take a radically different approach to Wi-Fi planning, using almost real-time data from Carrier Wi-Fi hotspots to calculate the Wi-Fi service at any point in a building, including identifying other hotspots and the likely interference. At the moment, it’s Wi-Fi only. They've recording a nice video of their tool in action.

Amdocs (acquired Cellsite, Actix) published their State of the RAN report which included a few interesting insights. Justin Paul has seen less business directly in Small Cell rollout orchestration as yet, but has been proposing their planning/logistics system to rollout other types of equipment.

Several independent SON vendors continue to strive for wider adoption. I still think a RAN vendor independent approach is most likely to squeeze the best from multi-vendor networks. Cellwize announced wider rollout of their Centralised SON by Telefonica Europe. Airhop, which optionally also has a client embedded into each small cell as well as centralised co-ordination, have been technically mature, already have many partners and an open API. Launching eSON360 at the show, Joe Thome told me to expect to see them more visibly in the near future.

New product launches

CASA systems, a large and prestigious vendor in Cable TV and fixed networks, has entered the Small Cell business with a comprehensive end-to-end solution comprising a multi-mode 3G/4G enterprise small cell and a small cell edge gateway. Their Axyom 1U gateway module is designed to be distributed closer to the edge and incorporates security gateway, 3G and LTE aggregation. It could later also incorporate embedded applications, such as per the Mobile Edge Computing initiative. With their heritage in carrier grade solutions, the system can scale to Tier 1 proportions with the resilience, reliability and quality you’d expect. Although relatively new to market, CASA have been conducting interoperability tests with many other vendors at plugfests and are already in several live trials worldwide. My unconfirmed research indicates they are closely involved with China Mobile’s LTE Enterprise small cell rollout.

ip.access strengthened their 4G portfolio with three new products: E40, E60 and S60, faster, smaller and lower cost than before. Their LTE small cell gateway can aggregate signalling to make many cells appear to the core network as a single super-cell. Nick Johnson, CTO, told me they’d had a lot of interest in Viper, their neutral host proposal, which he had explained to us in detail recently. They were also showing off an outdoor product, integrated with CCS MetNet backhaul into a single form factor that closely resembles the Starship Enterprise when horizontal.

ipaccess CCS Starship Enterprise

Steve Paps Parallel Wireless 10W outdoorParallel Wireless were showing off their indoor product range, while also beefing up their outdoor units (now up to 5W+5W, shown on right). They’ve expanded into 3G, 4G and Carrier Wi-Fi, making rapid progress with the scope of their solution. Their CTO, Rajesh Mishra, explained their expansion into indoor product while Steve Papa actively showed off their latest products from his carry on luggage.

Several Chinese vendors appeared at the show for the first time, driven by China Mobile’s drive into Enterprise small cells this year. Ten Chinese vendors have won the first round of orders, of which Fujian Sunnada are believed to have the largest share with Baicells also well placed. While these are TD-LTE at 2.3GHz, both vendors were keen to point out they support other variants and frequencies. Baicells were also visible on the Intel booth with their LAA demo and on the Qualcomm booth with their elfCell (shown below).

MWC16 Baicells Qualcomm Elfcell

Chipset vendors

If you want turbo-power, then Cavium are the people to speak to. Raj Singh  clearly enjoyed demonstrating their OCTEON Fusion M chip which can be configured in any of four different ways, splitting the RAN protocol stack between the RF radio head and Cloud RAN controller in whichever way you want. They partnered with Argela, located in a different hall, to demonstrate the Cloud RAN concept in full. Argela, previously a small cell vendor with R&D in Turkey, have pivoted to become an innovator based in California creating IPR showing what’s possible. One of the more advanced concepts was Network Slicing - creating virtual basestation instances on the chip, allocating fixed resources for (say) IoT or business users for a given time period. They provide an App to control and configure it. Raj sees this being most relevant to very high density venues and stadiums, competing with Digital DAS, and comments that the market for smaller offices and buildings may not be large enough to justify the solution.

Big iron Cloud RAN vendors will love this story but I think higher volume small cell vendors will have a close eye on component cost and select a lower cost option.

Intel seem to be quietly making a comeback into Small Cell designs. Having acquired Mindspeed (who had bought Picochip), they seem to have restored “normal service”. Many of the TD-LTE designs (esp. China) seem to incorporate them, benefitting from Picochips early foray into  Chinese TDS-CDMA.

Broadcom continue to dominate by volume. Qualcomm is slowly adding business and look well positioned for LAA in particular. TI and NXP (was Freescale) remain embedded in larger basestations and in those with a wider product scope. Spidercloud announced they’ll use Qualcomm (currently a Broadcom customer) for their LAA product. Amit Jain, Spidercloud’s VP Product Management, explained their views on scalable architectures and chipset implications in a recent interview with us.

MWC16 Spidercloud Stand

Transitioning from old to new

About five years ago we saw the WiMAX vendors switch to LTE when they realised this was the long term industry direction. Today we’re seeing the same with TETRA vendors. Air-LynxLynx, a French company, showed off their standalone LTE public safety system which fits in a fridge sized box and can be up and running in minutes. Compatible with smartphones, they bring their public safety services expertise to the LTE world. Smartphone Push-to-Talk was demoed.

I think VoLTE (voice over LTE) is a prerequisite (or at least a major factor) for LTE-only small cells. In the medium term, multimode 3G/4G products would find more favour. Mike Cronin of Node-H shares that view and highlights that relatively few vendors offer combined 3G/4G solutions today. Not everyone agrees though – Nick Johnson of ip.access points out that fallback to macro coverage of 3G for voice may be adequate in some scenarios. ip.access do have both technologies and do plan a multi-mode product but expect it to be used more in specialist use cases.

VoLTE availability remains patchy, with US, UK and China leading and rest of Europe catching up. EXFO, who provide Service Assurance to many networks worldwide, have good insights into the real state of VoLTE deployment to date. Claudio Mazzuca, VP Transport and Service Assurance at EXFO, told me that this varies widely between the well engineered, mature LTE deployments and some others which simply provide a single best-effort data pipe without even implementing differentiated QoS using QCI codes end-to-end. Engineering VoLTE to provide a similar or better service than 2G/3G voice requires complex, big-data analytics end-to-end spanning multiple protocol layers. He highlighted the complexity of tracing and matching traffic performance end-to-end at multiple protocol layers to identify/resolve issues, something that needs the huge big-data crunching capabilities which they offer.

Taqua (since acquired by Sonus) offer a short cut for those wanting VoLTE without re-inventing all their 3G voice services in 4G IMS by translating/relaying VoLTE back into the 3G core. It seems 3GPP didn’t do such a great job on the specifications, meaning that inter-network VoLTE calls aren’t yet that common – partly because each network may have interpreted the specs differently.  Keith Mumford, VP technology at Taqua, sees no pattern for which operators will stick with 3G (using CSFB) or adopt VoLTE at the moment. Many more operators have VoWiFi (Taqua alone have over 40 customers) than VoLTE (GSMA states 46 live) today.

Chris Pearson of 5GAmericas notes that customer expectation of VoLTE QoS was high and operators don’t want to risk their reputation – it’s not a free or best-effort service like Skype. He also confirmed that current interoperability issues exist between carriers today.

Surprising new technologies at the show

VoLTE is voice, ViLTE is video. A new one for me was GiLTE (GSM in the LTE spectrum). cellXica have managed to serve both GSM and LTE in the same spectrum band simultaneously, meaning their small cell is compatible with both cheaper/older GSM and the latest LTE smartphones simultaneously. They’ve integrated Quortus core network software to create a standalone GSM/LTE network in a box. So perhaps you don’t have to switch off your 2G network entirely (as will ATT/Telstra at end 2016). The technology sounds great but I’m less convinced about the acronym.

Delegates were beating a path to Kathrein’s booth to see their new Street Connect manhole cover antenna, which we discovered at the DAS Europe conference last December. By placing a 1W small cell under the street (connected to Kathrein’s specially designed antenna sitting below the composite plastic manhole cover), they can cover up to 200m horizontally at street level. Not all countries have power in the street conduits (eg not Germany) and I’m not sure about the political acceptability (even if the RF power level is well below SAR limits and less impact than a normal mobile phone at full power). Earl Lum joked about whether street planners would mandate that the colour precisely matches that of other manhole covers in the same street – I asked whether this would include the level of rust too. Kathrein staff were very pleased with the level of attention this approach was getting – I’ve not seen it anywhere else.

MWC16 Kathrien Street Connect

Luminate Wireless, a Californian startup, are still in stealth mode but I spotted their 4G enterprise (64 user) small cell on the Qualcomm booth. My research suggests they are building an LTE neutral host solution that would be Cloud based and highly scalable. They’ll offer visibility of network activity to each Enterprise and I’d expect them to be targeting the new 3.5GHz shared spectrum in the US. They’ve attracted a highly experienced and well connected executive team and raised $43 million to date, so will be one to watch.

MWC16 Qualcomm Small Cells

MWC16 Ruckus Enterprise Small Cells Plugon


Ruckus Wireless are moving fast to add 3.5GHz small cell capability to their Wi-Fi routers. In a similar approach to Cisco, they are developing a plug-in module for their existing indoor Enterprise Wi-Fi boxes to serve that. An experienced team has been quickly recruited and design work started. Product Manager Juan Santiago showed me a space model of their concept design (shown on right, bottom is a small cell plugged into a ZoneFlex H500 on top) and explained why they were so keen on the 3.5GHz US band - it complements rather than competes with 5GHz Wi-Fi frequencies. Another factor is that handsets should be relatively quickly available, since this frequency is already in use in Japan. They’ve also joined the MuLTeFire consortium and branded their own shared spectrum architecture as OpenG.

Renuka Bhalerao, Radisys, sees a resurgence in interest for small cell product development using their CellEngine software. They sport a long list of engagements with small cell vendors. I suspect they are incorporated in many of the latest Chinese TD-LTE designs alongside Intel – Baicells and Panda are some of the public announcements; elsewhere they work with global players such as Parallel Wireless, Airspan and others. She said they've already developed LTE-U, 3.5Ghz band and are well positioned to support LAA when the specs are finalised. VoLTE support is inherent. Further increasing individual small cell capacity is next, with a "mini Cloud RAN" architecture based on Intel's latest chipset that should support 256 concurrent users.


I had lengthy discussion and debate with Ingo Flomer, Product Management Director of Cobham, which acquired Axell’s digital idDAS product line as deployed at Wembley Stadium and other large sites. He sees continued opportunity for DAS at large sites, and was keen to point out that the lifecycle cost of digital DAS is lower than legacy passive DAS – lower OPEX costs and more rapid deployment more than offset slightly higher (no more than 20%) initial CAPEX. He felt this point is sometimes lost in procurement circles when comparing only the initial cost.

Scott Willis, CEO of Zinwave, also sees a growing opportunity for DAS but recognises that funding may come in future more from Enterprises than just from operators – he’s reconfiguring their sales channels to include VARs and SI’s to address that.

Commscope, another major DAS vendor, have clearly changed their views on small cells by acquiring Airvana (they have been very impressed by the sheer capacity densification that system can achieve) but seem less interested in the very low end/smaller building side of the market.

New and evolved small cell products

Nokia have incorporated ALU’s small cell portfolio into theirs. Randy Cox, product manager for Small Cells at Nokia told me he’ll retain ALU’s multi-mode Enterprise/Residential solution and consolidate where there is more overlap. Their long term vision remains that LTE will ultimately win out, and their FlexiZone product line, now rebranded into AirScale, balances LTE and Carrier Wi-Fi. Urban site acquisition is recognised as an issue, and they’ve launched SCORE – a system to acquire and validate urban sites – to address that. Their 9 litre mini-macro offers what Randy thinks is unmatched capacity (eg number of concurrent sessions) for the size, of at least 400 indoor and 840 outdoor at aggregate data rates up to 600Mbps.

Samsung showed me their Enterprise small cell products behind closed doors (sorry - no photos allowed). Their LTE only Enterprise small cell announced for Verizon last month (branded Network Extender) handles up to 42 concurrent users, aimed at buildings up to 100,000 square feet. They already had demos of LTE-U and plenty of 5G technology to show too.

Accelleran, who's experienced team is now on their fourth small cell design, had been focussing on TD-LTE for some years and demonstrated their software solution which is portable across several leading chipset reference designs. They've teamed up with Deltenna for hardware platform and Eurona Telecom (who own 3.5GHz spectrum) so were one of the few who could run a truly live system onsite at the show. Hardware comes in four increments from 100mW indoor to 5W outdoor. They've already designed in priority access features to meet FCC requirements for 3.5GHz and LTE-U/LAA schemes for 5GHz bands plus can now also support FDD mode.

What all these 3.5GHz and 5GHz bands have in common is that they use TD-LTE, which requires tight phase synchronisation. Microsemi launched an updated and expanded version of their iGM-1100 (integrated GNSS Master Clock) based on extensive field trials and operation over the past year. They now support multiple orientation of the box (nail it to walls or ceilings), external antennas where available and added an outdoor version. View a pre-recorded webinar on this topic from Microsemi when convenient.

Huawei released Version 2 of their Lampsite indoor product, announced last year. They support LAA but haven't yet publicly decided about MuLTeFire.

Backhaul vendors take a back seat

The slow pace of urban small cell rollout meant there was less visible marketing in this sector than previous years. CCS secured a reseller agreement with Ericsson and announced their compact integrated small cell plus backhaul unit, initially hosting ip.access but in future could accommodate others.

Shai Yaniv of Ceragon, globally the largest independent wireless backhaul vendor, observed that small cell backhaul is currently a very small slice of their business. Their macrocell backhaul business continues to grow as operators upgrade to faster links in support of LTE while retaining antenna and management systems. He recognises that operators would always choose fibre backhaul wherever available, but points out that this isn’t the case everywhere and it can take a long time to deploy. He continues to see wireless backhaul retaining a substantial market share, even as we progress to 5G.

Nonetheless, wireless backhaul vendors continue to develop solutions and address adjacent markets until the opportunity. CCS, Intracom, RADWIN, CBNL, Ceragon, Dragonwave and many others continued to be viable choices when the time comes.

On the wireline side, BT Openreach announced they were trialling G.Fast using (legacy) copper wires to provide fronthaul for Cavium's Cloud RAN architecture using line speeds of 150Mbps to 200Mbps.


Despite an intensive meeting schedule all day every day, I still ran out of time to meet with everyone I wanted to. Apologies for those I missed out on.

The Enterprise small cell sector is definitely heating up, actual shipments have grown and orders placed. Future evolution is promising with strong interest in LAA, MuLTeFire and the FAA’s 3.5GHz band. Even Wi-Fi proponents such as Ruckus Wireless are getting on the bandwagon.

Partly that’s because it’s not just technical. New business models enabled by neutral host, visible investments by China Mobile and Verizon are stimulating interest. Third party neutral host businesses and products are starting to appear. A new tranche of LTE only vendors is appearing, such as those from China.

The outdoor sector is less visibly taking off, held back by logistics and perhaps a greater reluctance to share spectrum with a small cell layer. They will come and will be predominantly LTE only and depends on VoLTE rollout, which has been delayed by technical complexity. LTE is clearly the global long term objective, as evidenced by migration of public safety from TETRA.

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