The 50% increase in delegates at this year's Small Cell World Summit in London reflects the industry's rapidly changing views about small cells. 98% of operators now see them as an essential part of their roadmap. Attendance was up from 460 to 720, including 230 operator delegates from 110 companies. A separate parallel backhaul session attracted up to 70 delegates. We saw several DAS vendors for the first time, one commenting that this event was bigger than the comparable DAS one. There were a few lively debates at times too.
From such a large event, I can only pick out a few main themes and highlights – apologies in advance to those I've overlooked or under-represented. These include both presentations and discussions during the event.
A shift across from residential
The focus of the event has certainly shifted away from residential femtocells – that's still "business as usual" – and this segment seems unlikely to grow dramatically unless operators change their commercial approach. There's no doubt femtocells work technically, but few customers seem prepared to pay extra for a coverage solution and few operators seem to be radical enough to subsidise them for everyone. I'd expect this segment will grow further and continue to solve residential coverage issues, but it would take a major operator mindset change for dramatic volumes to be achieved.
The huge investment it took to achieve commercially scalable Femtocells has provided a good springboard for the industry to move on to the next stage.
Gordon Mansfield, Chair of the Small Cell Forum, referred to the innovator's dilemma of "Crossing the Chasm" - wanting to capitalise on the substantial experience from existing small cell deployments, building momentum to allow the early majority of small cell operators to ramp up quickly. This is what the Small Cell Forum's release program is all about, positioned as a "How To" guide for everything about small cell deployment. The Forum has a substantial work program to produce documents on Enterprise small cells before the end of the year, with a further release focussed on Metrocells due out early next year. It was good to hear several new operators and vendors keen to step in and actively participate in the work program. The Forum added its 150th member during the week.
3G vs LTE
Manish Singh, CTO Radisys, explained why there are different demands for 3G and LTE small cells. The need for LTE small cells is primarily capacity augmentation – the availability of fast LTE services actually increases demand further, and he sees LTE operators wanting to adopt smaller cells quickly. Korea leads the way here, having proven that multi-vendor LTE networks using X.2 interface is quite possible. Speakers from countries with strong LTE deployments, Korea, Japan and USA all spoke of their plans for LTE public access metrocells.
For indoor use, it seems that 3G is more of a priority. With many businesses allowing users to Bring Their Own Device (BYOD), many of which remain 3G, there is more of a "mixed bag" of devices to support. Coverage and quality (ie low call drop rate) are more important here.
Responding to that need, various exhibitors showed LTE small cells of different levels of maturity. Most have a roadmap towards multi-mode 3G/LTE equipment, with several of the LTE only vendors now "retrofitting" 3G and most of the 3G vendors having plans to add LTE. Exhibitors included those demonstrating both working products or the underlying subsystems which could handle both.
I came away with a general impression that the wide range of 3G small cells available today (residential, enterprise, Metrocell) are all field proven and deployable. LTE is well on its way, being most advanced in Korea, and will be introduced for public access metrocells first. There's a lot of talk of LTE-Advanced features, such as Carrier Aggregation to achieve higher data rates and differentiate from competitors, which I think detracts from the need for a reliable initial LTE small cell solution.
Continuing investment in small cell chips
Two particular announcements this week caught my eye:
Qualcomm formally released their FSM99xx chip, based on technology acquired from DesignArts combined with their extensive in-house capabilities. This powerful platform includes 4 ARM A15 processors running at 2GHz and delivers 3G and LTE multi-mode with an option to add on Wi-Fi. They've tweaked the ARM cores and incorporated technology from their SnapDragon handset business to drive down power consumption, claiming to be best in the industry. Sampling in 2H 2013, the chips will incorporate UltraSON technology to make best use of RF efficiency, and supports both TDD and FDD modes from the outset. They've already signed up Airspan to use it.
TI also announced a new chip, expanding their formidable KeyStone range with a complementary digital chip and RF front end – the 6630 and AFE7500 – which handles up to 128 concurrent users. They've targeted the (approx. 21.6Watts) power budget of Power over Ethernet, which will come in handy for Enterprise installations. Extending a range already embedded in Ubiquisys (now Cisco) products and also selected by ZTE and PureWave, they highlight the benefit of using a family of chipsets which scale to meet different needs. These chips should also be sampling 2H2013.
The way that the industry has deployed macrocells to date won't work for small cells. Either the internal processes need to be redesigned and streamlined to work 10x faster, or the entire activity outsourced to a business that already works in those volumes. Gordon Mansfield who leads AT&T's small cell program explained that they've been assessing their internal processes and are developing methods and tools to dramatically speed up their operations – walk first, then run. Alternatively operators can outsource - Virgin Mobile, COLT, Cloudberry and others offer to do the field work for operators on a Small Cell Hosting basis. A third possibility is where vendors such as Alcatel-Lucent will build out the small cell system for you (including site acquisition, deployment, optimization) and hand it over afterwards once its working properly.
We might all learn a few things from SK Telecom, who explained their in-house SON (Self Organising Network) system that automates configuration for their deployment of up to 100 LTE public access small cells per day (my estimate). I was told it only takes one day to install and commission each new site.
Cisco's approach includes the straightforward upgrade of their existing Wi-Fi hotspots with a 3G Ubiquisys small cell module. The low power consumption mean these can continue to be supported by the same Ethernet cable, and connect through to the same Cisco router/gateway. Perhaps more importantly, existing Wi-Fi installers/system integrators could quickly be trained to make the upgrade.
NEC's Anil Kohli told me that 3G small cell technology is already seen as mature. Operators new to small cells are prepared to go straight to commercial pilot trials with friendly customers, using small cell solutions such as Spidercloud's that have already been battle hardened/proven elsewhere without the need for a further round of extended lab testing.
The synergy between cellular and Wi-Fi
Nick Johnson, CTO of ip.access, captured the current view of the industry about how these two technologies need to work together. He feels that it's not either/or, but that both will co-exist and we need to do what we can to make them work well – comparing it to a marriage.
That's reflected in the growing range of small cells which have Wi-Fi as an option. Apparently AT&T have mandated this on all their small cells, but take the view they may only turn it on in a limited number (say 20-30%).
One speaker commented that end users don't really care (or know) what radio access technology they use – it is the quality of experience and service delivered that counts. To that extent, service providers have to deliver a quality/premium service that is consistent and reliable, allowing them to charge a premium over best effort/free Wi-Fi alternatives.
I was again fortunate to join the panel of judges for the Small Cell awards. The range and quality of entries also grew and all those shortlisted should be proud of their achievement. In addition to the regular company entries, my congratulations to Rupert Baines, Simon Saunders, Julius Robson and Nick Johnson who all received special awards.
Apparently there may be a new category for most amusing MC next year, which I'm confident that Andy Germano would win – he was very entertaining. Meanwhile Rupert Baines and Simon Saunders had strong entries for the most outlandish shirt.
Many attendees confirmed that this is the premier Small Cell event of the year. The narrow focus of the event self-selects those in this part of the industry. The associated Small Cell Forum meetings attract key industry personel, making both the presentations and the offline networking extremely worthwhile.
Congratulations to Avren/Clarion for another sparkling event. Apparently next year will see a move to a larger venue elsewhere in London, which will hopefully avoid the "rabbit warren" style treks to meeting rooms and allow more exhibition space to satisfy demand.
Some other points that cropped up
- TE Connectivity, a DAS vendor, feels that DAS technology has been slightly misrepresented and isn't quite as expensive as portrayed. While AT&T are still planning to invest in 1000+ new DAS systems, they did confirm that there are many buildings which can justify the cost of small cells but not DAS.
- The precise location of a small cell can't be determined by either the RF planning or the backhaul alone. David Orloff, Small Cell Manager at AT&T, was insistent that both aspects have to be factored in
- Cisco announced a small cell wireless backhaul ecosystem. This isn't linked to their enterprise small cells (and supports anybody's small cells), is based on their ASR 901S router and partners with BlinQ, Fastback, RADWIN, Dragonwave, NEC & Siklu.
- There will be 4 billion Wi-Fi capable devices shipped next year.
- For public access small cells, it's less about the cost of the box, and more about the total cost of operation
We've assembled some short video snippets from various participants during the show, including insights from Gordon Mansfield (Chairman of Small Cell Forum)