The Small Cell Forum meets alongside several Small Cell conferences, providing a time and place for all the key participants to meet up face to face. Much of its work in between is done by conference call and email collaboration. The Forum opened up its doors last week at an all comers workshop meeting to review and discuss its release program. I'd estimate there were about 50 attendees, mostly a mix of Forum members and a number of analysts. We report on their progress to date and future plans.
Looking back on progress to date and asking what's holding back deployment
The Forum has certainly produced a substantial number of documents, several of which are quite extensive. The release program focuses its efforts and significantly increased member participation. Gordon Mansfield reported over 60,000 downloads to date, a figure he's very pleased with. The most popular document remains the Backhaul specification, and he settled a bet made publicly last year between Julius Robson and Nick Johnson on whether that would be the case.
[Above: Julius Robson (left) accepts a small bet placed last year with Nick Johnson from Gordon Mansfield, who adjudicated]
The Forum engaged Maravedis-Rethink to survey operators for their views on the program's work to date. I didn't record the sample size but it is clearly wider than just the Forum's own members. Caroline Gabriel reported that there was "considerable flexibility" in deployment timescales across different operators. I'd interpret that as including a fair bit of uncertainty, but the pattern is that everyone has a plan, even if its a flexible one.
- Residential small cells still seem to be suffering from a poor business model.
- Enterprise Small Cells are being held up by a couple of other factors:
- On the technical side: SON, Automation and understanding
- On the deployment side: The need to secure new partnerships such as with Systems Integrators
- Urban Small Cells have issues with site acquisition, backhaul and power.
The release program has allayed many concerns and improved confidence in the technology. However operators are naturally risk-averse, most are happy to "go with the crowd" in a herd mentality. They like the fact that Small Cells give them more flexibility to choose different vendors and can switch between them relatively easily.
When asked what they use the documents for, 80% said general interest, 70% said for strategy development and over 60% said these help address technical issues. Over half said the content went into their business modelling process, 45% incorporated details into their practical deployment plan.
Urban Release 4 published this month
Lisa Garza, who leads the Forum's marketing group, presented the latest Urban release which adds some 15 new documents to the library. It's comprehensive, broken down into topics covering services, regulatory, market, IOT, radio, network architecture, backhaul and deployment.
The technology aspect is mainly in the background, the emphasis is more on the deployment aspects.
The market driver isn't purely about data offload or infill, but instead about delivering a reliable, comprehensive and deep coverage that guarantees good voice and data service. There's more focus on LTE and a series of plugfests to prove interoperability is already underway with ETSI.
Remote and Rural Release 5 up next
The scope of the next phase of the release program is wider than first meets the eye. This isn't about providing sheep with 5 bar coverage in very sparsely populated areas (probably why I dislike the term "meadow cells"), but cost effectively bringing cellular service to those in off-net and possibly off-grid locations.
Richard Deasington of iDirect explained how it's broken down into four categories:
1. Remote: Rural villages, industrial sites such as oil rigs and mines
2. Moving: All kinds of transport including maritime (e.g. cruise ships), rail, aircraft
3. Temporary: Disaster recovery, events, military
4. Private/Standalone: Offnet, secure private networks. (eg EPOS networks purely to handle wireless credit card point of sale machines)
Aspects which will be crucial for these use cases include backhaul, caching and geo-fencing.
Slides from the workshop can be found on SlideShare here.
Including a virtual element
[Above: Gordon Mansfield, Chairman of the Small Cell Forum, introducing the virtualisation work stream]
With so much industry hype and marketing activity around Network Virtualisation, the Forum is keen to address the topic. It's certainly causes confusion for many, with Gordon Mansfield saying that he frequently gets questions from analysts asking how Small Cells fit with Cloud RAN.
A parallel workstream has been created to look at how virtualisation impacts Small Cells.
The slides outlining the new program can be viewed here.
These include a new term for me – "Cloudification" – which I guess means putting more functions and features in the cloud (or centralised data centres). These generally require high bandwidth to the radio nodes – fine if you have plenty of dark fibre to hand – but I can't see that being feasible in the majority of cases.
While I think it would be helpful for the Forum to clarify some of the terminology and architecture trade-offs, I just hope this doesn't become a major focus or distraction.
After having produced such a comprehensive library of documentation in a fairly short space of time, what's next for the Forum? Should it continue to expand its scope and document other areas or revisit work already done?
We have an expression in the UK of "painting the Forth Road Bridge". It's such a large task, that when finished at the far end, you immediately restart at the beginning. Effectively it's a task that can never be completed.
My view is that there remains plenty of refinement and revision work to be done across the current scope, adding learning points from experience as more small cells are deployed, more commercial data becomes available for the business case, and as customers use new devices in different and probably unpredictable patterns. Not all of the documents are perfect or fully complete in scope.
For example, while the standards body 3GPP makes headlines with their latest new LTE-Advanced features, there continues to be ongoing improvements and enhancements to 2G and 3G standards too.
The concerns and issues raised by operators who delay and defer small cell deployment haven't really changed that much since before the release program. Perhaps there are other ways that the Forum could develop and deliver its content to reach and educate a wider audience.
Feel free to add your comments, suggestions below (anonymously if you prefer). Do you think the Forum has done a good job to date? Is its work complete?