SCWS, now in its 9th year, remains a regular feature of the small cell calendar. Now a two day conference, attendance was lower than some years ago but stable with noticeably more system integrators/installers actively participating. There was a little more focus on business enablers rather than technology this year, addressing deployment issues and neutral host opportunities for enterprise, urban and rural sectors.
Setting the scene
This wasn’t an event with many bold headlines, product launches or major breakthroughs. There continues to be steady progress, shipments are slowly increasing across all sectors, and while not quite yet in the hockey stick curve there is business being done by those who have stayed the course.
Delegates were mainly from UK/ Europe (with a few US and Asian vendors) making this appear more of a regional rather than global event. Conference sponsorship has completely switched from mostly startups some years ago, with both Ericsson and Huawei taking the lead and Nokia also highly visible. Small Cells have become mainstream.
The plush venue of the Intercontinental Hotel provided great facilities, from sound systems (and sound proofing between rooms), food and logistics. Timekeeping was quite relaxed, starting 30 mins late and becoming unsynchronised between the two streams, making it difficult to keep to a meeting schedule. There was no Gala Dinner this year for the Small Cell Award Ceremony, which instead offered a clearer presentation format explaining the purpose of each award and more time to mingle before and after. Both those nominated and those winning are worthy of celebration. Read the full list of winners here.
The scope of SCWS is intended to embrace all of Small Cells, DAS and (Public Access) Wi-Fi. We saw one or two more DAS vendors participate but there was relatively little public Wi-Fi content. Perhaps that reflects the limited interest for that in Europe, as we saw at the recent Wireless Broadband Congress. The program included a few keynote speakers from operators (EE, O2, ATT, KDDI, Softbank) and some industry verticals (AEG, which operates the O2 dome and other stadiums; Grange Hotels etc.)
Many mature small cell products are available today for both 3G and LTE. Form factors continue to shrink, software is becoming further automated and refined. The backhaul conference stream has been dropped with CCS now the most prominent independent small cell backhaul vendor.
These have been a useful prelude to the main conference event, allowing more focussed time to learn about subjects without quite so much hype or distraction.
Huawei again ran a half-day session with invited speakers which was well attended. UK operators are clearly trying to work out how to deploy small cells effectively, while still quite keen to maximise the outdoor macrocell approach they are familiar with. Roy Atul of EE noted the diversity of business factors for in-building deployments. Tony Conlan of O2 listed many of the issues arising from outdoor urban. In both cases, there seemed to be an acceptance that once the form factor and processes have been standardised, then small cell deployments can become “business as usual”.
I presented on Neutral Host, explaining the wide variety of business scope that this term has been applied to. ip.access ran an afternoon session on this topic, inviting a panel from diverse viewpoints to debate several approaches alongside ip.access SUMO. They have added Presence to their VIPER2020 neutral host cloud solution.
David Orloff, Chair of the Small Cell Forum since October last year, presented the keynote and outlined the continuing work of the organisation which celebrated its 10th anniversary (yes, the birthday cake was good). The Forum has re-organised into five workgroups (Marketing, Business Principles, Operations, Technical and 5G, Interoperability) and two workstreams (Deploying Hyperdense networks and Enabling the Digital Enterprise).
The Forum continues to publish more documents and announced another eight which completes Release 9, including an updated market statistics report from incorporating a bold forecast of what the network will look like 10 years from now.
Gordon Mansfield, now SVP of AT&T RAN, positioned his company as more of an entertainment business than a communications provider. Nonetheless, the statistics are impressive with 150 Petabytes carried over their wireless network daily (he didn’t specifically state how much was Wi-Fi vs 3G vs 4G). That’s about 1 Gbyte per subscriber per day. In the past year, traffic has growth 75% and some 75% of wireless data is from smartphones rather than tablets or laptops.
They have deployed LTE advanced features including 256QAM, 4x4 MIMO and Carrier Aggregation. Today’s smartphone chipsets can use these features but not necessarily at the same time – the next step will be chipsets which can. He foresees LAA in commercial use before end 2017 providing that headline 1 Gbps peak throughput (as I reported from their demo at MWC). He is also bullish about 5G timescales, expecting the Phase 1 standard documents by end 2017 and silicon for radios by end 2018. Both LAA and 5G will rely on large numbers of small cells to achieve their full potential.
The Enterprise segment is the most promising for short term revenue and deployments continue to grow with volumes recently overtaking those of outdoor macro. The Small Cell Forum launched their Enterprise Advisory Council and has worked with Avren for greater engagement and participation of vertical markets. David Orloff notes there is a “Reach Problem”, i.e. how to make individuals in different enterprise verticals aware of the Forum’s existence and relevance, and how they can contribute.
David also observed there has been a lot of construction activity in the UK for re-building and refurbishment. He sees a need to incorporate a standard set of wiring and cabling to support all sorts of technology including wireless. After all, buildings don’t have different coloured pipes to distribute fresh water for different purposes, so why should each data and telecommunications service have independent types of cabling?
Distributed Radio Systems such as Huawei Lampsite, Ericsson RadioDot and ZTE Qcell have been enjoying some success in recent years. Huawei’s Lampsite 3.0 will offer both DAS and built-in small cell capability in a single solution. ZTE showcased its new Qcell Plus with increased capacity and performance.
Using a combination of Small Cells and DAS was suggested by several contributors. SK Telecom have used 4G only small cells to expand the capabilities of existing 2G/3G DAS deployments. Nokia also promote this choice. SpiderCloud are also known to have been used in this way.
NEC, having gained experience over many years in residential and enterprise femtocells, continue to offer their own 3G/4G small cell gateway and associated integration services. By contrast, Cisco weren't visible with any product or service although I understand they are still reselling SpiderCloud for new sales and continue to ship their own (Ubiquisys) femtocells but not developing them.
OpenCell have proven there is a business model for relatively simple enterprise small cell deployment using existing femtocells – they now have over 50 buildings live including some very prestigious brands believed to include Claridges, Hilton and Sheraton. There still seems to be reluctance on the part of some European operators to accept that building owners would contribute substantially towards the cost of deployment, and that the complexity of managing new vendor’s equipment is viable.
LTE Relay products such as Sprint MagicBox and Vodafone CrowdCell were mentioned but not on display. Smart Repeaters were visible from Net Coverage Solutions who have been appointed UK distributors of Nextivity Cel-Fi range, starting with the PRO and PRO-X for Vodafone.
In US and Asia everybody is working on hyper-densification, with more street furniture vendors coming into play. Randy Cox of Nokia has seen strong growth, with shipments doubling. They’ve been seeing more activity in US and China compared to Europe so far, but Telefonica O2 recently announced a major small cell expansion for London and the South East.
Several system integrators and services businesses would happily solve some of the practical problems that operators have come across. Commscope clearly sees in-building and outdoor as quite separate problems with different solutions. They have both and talked about the various form factors that can be used to blend in with street furniture.
Practical solutions to accelerate deployment were shown by several vendors ranging from radio planning tools (Ranplan, iBwave, Infovista) through to HUBER+SUHNER Quick-Connect fibre connectors and various forms of street side cabinets. CCS were one of the few (possibly the only) urban small cell backhaul vendor exhibiting - their mesh solution is perceived as highly appropriate and I'm hearing that shipments are slowly creeping up.
Several operators, especially EE, highlighted their growing focus on geographic rather than simply population coverage. Parallel Wireless are clearly enjoying some success in this market, exhibiting a range of higher power outdoor units where low cost and simplicity of deployment are important. Satellite backhaul is now seen as credible where before the cost and long latency were considered unviable. Gilat were the most visible satellite provider at the event, celebrating successful deployment by Optus in Australia amongst other regions.
Small Cell Forum reports nFAPI source code downloads now up to 60. Lime Microsystems were demonstrating their open source RF board and expect to have a software download App Store with a few months where you can buy code to run your own small cell and private LTE network.
The event provides an excellent opportunity to meet and reconnect with industry players, both old and new. The emphasis and participation has evolved over the years, but it remains a key focal point to assess the current state of play for the industry.