This boutique conference event had a sharp focus on Enterprise Small Cells for the Nordic region, attracting some 40 delegates. These included several prominent small cell industry speakers including Chris Gilbert (formerly CEO of Ubiquisys), Tom Goldberg (CEO Cloudberry), Ronny Haraldsvik (CMO Spidercloud), alongside speakers from Ericsson, local operators and nearby research institute. I find the networking opportunities in such events can be very good, and you often learn more from those sidebar discussions than at some of the larger events. But if I had to choose, then the larger events tend to have wider impact and attract a broader audience.
The Scandinavian centre of excellence for mobile network technology
The significance of the venue for this event shouldn't be lost on the reader – Kista near Stockholm is the main research centre for Ericsson, which continues to invest around $5 billion annual in R&D and is one of the top two mobile infrastructure vendors worldwide. They've been noticeably absent from the small cell business up to now, and presented their Radio Dot concept which (in my view) is more akin to single operator DAS than true small cell technology.
Strong theme of Enterprise Small Cells
The theme of the event was Enterprise small cells with little mention of outdoor/rural/domestic. Several recurring issues crop up, which I've heard being made (and answered) at recent events:
- It's the planning/deployment/commission process to roll out large numbers of small cells that are now seen as the highest barrier to mass take-up than the technology
- Some RAN departments continue to be skeptical of small cell technology that doesn't require RF engineers to be intimately involved
- Coverage inside buildings seems to be getting worse, not better, as we move to more intensive use of mobile data
- More than half of the Enterprise IT managers surveyed said they'd switch operators if they could get better indoor coverage
- Anything from 20 to 80% of licenced spectrum remains unused inside buildings today.
Small Cell Managed Services and the game of Chess
Tom Guldberg of Cloudberry opened the event. His company offer a managed service and have switched from using the NEC gateway and services across to 100% Cisco, probably encouraged by Cisco's purchase of Ubiquisys and the small cells they continue to use.
He preached a gospel of the 5 "C"s:
- Customer satisfaction
He perceives a changing view of cost control, with operators more open to shifting from a CAPEX to OPEX model, outsourcing more and accepting slightly more risk. There are a lot of activities quietly going on behind the scenes. He commented "This is a chess game; a lot of players are making their moves on the board now, with a view to being well positioned for the future."
Small Cell vendors tout their wares
Chris Gilbert of Cisco (formerly CEO of Ubiquisys) points out Cisco now have over 2 million 3G small cells deployed. While most in the US are for coverage, many in Japan/Korea are for capacity. Some 95% are co-channel (share the same 3G frequencies as the macrocells), so this has been proven to work.
While many industry commentators point to future traffic growth of 10x per subscriber or more, in city centres this can mean traffic density grows by 50x or higher. Adding new spectrum, evolving to 4G and expanding existing macrocells might deliver up to 8x growth but that simply won't be enough.
One scenario he speculated on was what BT (the UK fixed network provider) could do with their newly acquired 2.6GHz 4G spectrum if they decided to swamp the country with small cells. Imagine one installed at every fibre termination point – in street cabinets, homes and offices. If something like 7% of all home were equipped this way, it could provide nationwide coverage.
The technology isn't amateurish or simple. A small cell has 26 million lines of software code running in it. Millions are deployed and proven to very high levels of availability. Cisco's USC 5310 "snap on" module plugs into their existing Aeronet Wi-Fi hotspot and upgrades it to full 3G voice and data service. This is a quick and easy installation requiring no special expertise – typically a small proportion of hotspots are upgraded and provide full area coverage inside buildings. Power and connectivity share the same Ethernet cables and routers as the existing Wi-Fi.
Perhaps the biggest issue today is that RAN managers are very leery of this wonderful new small cell stuff that works without engineers being intimately involved. This is slowing deployment of small cell networks - technical departments are scared. But If they don't accept it there will be tears.
The scaling up to deploy not tens of thousands but hundreds of thousands of units is not about the size or form factor of the box. It's about scaling up the processes and procedures to be able to do that quickly. This means the installation must not require highly skilled RF engineering expertise for detailed planning onsite. The actual wiring and commissioning should be feasible for any electrician or IT wiring technician – more of a similar model to Wi-Fi deployment.
This leads on to the need for automated SON, which Cisco have valued highly when adding it to their armoury.
Ronny Haraldsvik of Spidercloud felt that the case for Enterprise small cells didn't need to be re-iterated. Instead, he made the point that operators should be leveraging the full value of their spectrum assets – much of which are being wasted and lie fallow inside their (often dis-satisfied customers') buildings. He also emphasised that the short time and minimal disruption required to install enterprise small cells is easily demonstrated but often not yet fully believed. Spidercloud have commissioned an independent third party report explaining why their deployment can be achieved so much more quickly, including full IP security compliance. When IT departments understand they just need to provision a VLAN partition, they are generally satisfied it won't conflict with or affect their internal systems.
He also presented their latest dual-mode small cell (SCRN-310) which can be remotely programmed for either 3G or LTE operation or both. This allows operators to remotely refarm spectrum used in their enterprise installations in the future without site visits. The same Services Node controller co-ordinates both 3G/LTE service. This is based on the latest Broadcom chipset which consumes such low power that it allows dual mode small cells to fit within the constraints of Power over Ethernet, meaning only a single cable is required. Spidercloud's sweet spot is for buildings with 350 or more people, requiring anything from 10 to 100 radio nodes.
Ronny estimated the cost of providing an Enterprise RAN system to be similar to that of a Wireless LAN. He questioned which would keep the customer happier - if they could use their phone rather than having one that looks nice but doesn't work well.
Martin Ljunberg, strategic product manager for small cells, Ericsson, presented their Radio DOT concept. Reinforcing demand and the need for inbuilding solutions, Ericsson's approach is to deploy multiple remote radio heads throughout the building, connected back to a macrocell in the basement or rooftop. They've split their conventional remote radio head in two: the main part is connected via fibre (using a high speed CPRI interface) to the macrocell. This box could reside in a wiring closet on each floor of a high rise building. Dedicated CAT5 wiring is then used to connect each Radio DOT throughout the floor. This isn't Ethernet based and uses a proprietary protocol.
Benefits of the system are that it shares the same software code, testing and compatibility testing with handsets as their macrocells. It supports both 3G and LTE. Commercial deployments should start about a year from now (i.e. end 2014).
Downsides which I can see include that the cost of the solution still requires a full macrocell plus dedicated cabling to the distributed radio heads, whereas small cells can be standalone and share existing Ethernet VLANs. RF planning uses the same RF specialists as today although neighbour cell lists could be automatically generated using SON. Unlike a full DAS system, the Radio DOT is locked to a single network operator (as are other small cells today).
There were several questions from the audience, such as asking whether this solution would be suitable for multi-tenanted office buildings (e.g. is it cost effective to be installed for a few selected offices only) and how quickly it could be installed on a site.
Some related side conversations
- The culture in Sweden would be that visitors to your home would never dream of asking for your Wi-Fi password – that would be considered rude. They expect their 3G/4G cellular service to work indoors, and are becoming more dissatisfied as network performance from all operators has been reducing in quality over recent years. An independent audit of network quality in Sweden in now underway by the regulator.
- Icomera provide public Wi-Fi service onboard public transport in several countries, such as high speed trains and buses. They use multiple mobile data receivers which can connect to several operators simultaneously and receive on multiple frequencies, relaying that to the Wi-Fi access points. They only need a signal from any one operator to continue to provide seamless service. This radically reduces the impact and disruption to networks of hundreds of smartphones on each train handing over frequently between trackside basestations.
- Romania is the only European country that forces site owners to install separate equipment for each mobile operator (i.e. shared cellsites, DAS are legally prohibited).
- For more remote/rural areas, Eutelsat now has its KA-SAT with 82 spot beams covering EMEA region, each with 1Gbps capacity. It should make access to telecoms cheaper and more plentiful, including for small cells.
- Someone commented that Cisco don't have a sales channel to the Operators Radio Access departments, although they do have strong sales into Enterprise IT. One ex-Nokia Siemens Networks account manager at the event patently disagreed with that – he has recently become a Cisco employee...