The show kicked off to a very enthusiastic start with the pre-event workshop attracting not the typical 10-20, or even the 50 maximum planned for, but almost 200. Arguably it was the best of the three days in terms of audience participation and high value content. As usual, the high quality networking and business activity throughout the show was the most productive aspect for many who attended.
The Small Cell World Series events have been restructured to combine most of the program into a common plenary session, allowing discussion of different technologies in the same room rather than separately. More panel sessions allowed a wider range of views to be shared, with less of the vendor product pitches and more users. A separate room held parallel tracks for specialist topics in the afternoons. Total attendance was slightly down from the previous year, still over 600, with the mix shifting towards more customers (especially property developers/building owners) and a wider eco-system and smaller delegations from small cell vendors.
Main conference room
Residential Femtocells aren’t dead
With great timing, T-Mobile stole the headlines by announcing a new 3G/4G/Wi-Fi residential femtocell available free of charge to any of their “Simple Choice” post paid customers. It’s a dramatic announcement for several reasons:
T-Mobile USA has been a very vocal proponent of Voice over Wi-Fi for many years, championing the early UMA standard and the more recent Wi-Fi Calling.
It’s a combined 3G/4G box from Alcatel-Lucent (based on the Qualcomm chipset). The same chip drives both bands, supporting a mix of up to 16 concurrent users split across 3G and 4G. This avoids the need for any immediate smartphone upgrade while being future-proof with VoLTE
It’s free to customers and is configured with open-access rather than having the hassle of configuring a whitelist of users who can access it
Alcatel-Lucent were also showing off a sister Enterprise product, with 64-user capacity and 250mW RF power (rather than 100mW) for greater range. Again, the full capacity of 64 users can be split with any mix of 3G and 4G dynamically.
It continues to surprise me how many US colleagues I speak to who still don’t have adequate/reliable indoor mobile coverage at home. A few said they’d be asking for one as soon as they got the chance.
This will not only put pressure on other US networks to catch up, but sends a strong message that Wi-Fi Calling isn’t enough on its own to meet customer expectations. Unfortunately, the T-Mobile speaker had to drop out at the last minute. I understand that their coverage solutions will still include repeaters (such as the Nextivity Cel-Fi), Wi-Fi Calling (often shipping a dedicated router/modem to prioritise/ensure quality) as well as this new femtocell. It will be interesting to watch how the mix of those three options evolves over time.
In-building sector set for growth
The Small Cell Forum published a very accessible report (15 pages) with detailed figures from three separate analysts. They conclude that the Enterprise sector is set to grow most rapidly, forecasting 400k units shipped in 2015 growing to over 4 million units by 2020. These doesn’t suffer from the planning/zoning/logistics issues of outdoor metro and building owners/properties are prepared to share some of the costs. The size of each deal, particularly for mid to large sized buildings, is attractive enough for sales teams to get interested.
More visibly for me was the presence of property developers and building owners at the event. The value of real estate, and the rental prices, are strongly influenced by the quality of cellular service. Just as you wouldn’t think of staying at a hotel without Wi-Fi on business anymore, lack of cellular signal deters office and apartment rentals. Building developers are now minded to fund reasonable costs of in-building cellular infrastructure, although the high price of traditional DAS (more specifically the associated macrocell basestations to drive them) can break the budget. I believe it’s this pent up demand – business people with a real problem and some money to solve it – that will drive the industry forward.
At the moment, mid-sized building owners just aren’t being offered any solution by their network operators. There is real business pain to be addressed, budget available, mature technical solutions on offer – the combination of which I think will drive the market forward.
Small Cell Forum Chairman Alan Law pronounces that Small Cells now own the debate.
This buzzword cropped up again and again throughout the event. In a nutshell, operators can’t scale to deal directly with in-building solutions for thousands of individual building owners and businesses. In most cases, each building will want to be served by at least two or more network operators.
Instead, we can expect to see the growth of intermediaries. Such companies already exist and have deployed and managed DAS and small cell systems. Extenet is probably the largest in the US today, with revenues of over $1 billion. Boingo is another. Clearsky specifically promotes their service using a custom developed neutral host small cell gateway. This is a different business from the tower companies, such as Crown Castle and American Towers, with staff who actively design, configure and manage the active RF elements.
Ericsson made a strong pitch that they, in partnership with local systems integrators, will be a trusted neutral host. They illustrated a case study from South America, where Radio DOT has been installed in a hospital. They would support multiple network operators, installing parallel DOT systems as needed.
Others might prefer that the neutral host business isn’t run directly by an equipment vendor. ClearSky made a strong pitch explaining just how many Wi-Fi access points are often deployed in today’s hotels. A ratio of 1 per 4 rooms is common, 1 per room isn’t unknown. A small cell per 16 rooms should be more than adequate, so that using a “salt and pepper” distribution, alternating a small cell from each of four operators, you could cover a building with four cellular networks using the same number of Wi-Fi and small cells. Combined units now make this as easy as deploying Wi-Fi alone and much cheaper than alternatives. An installation timescale of 30 minutes per Wi-Fi access point is a reasonable rule of thumb to use here.
It seems clear to me that there’s a sizeable opportunity for neutral host businesses if they can gain the trust of the Tier 1 networks and have the scale to deploy in volume.
The Small Cell Forum predicts that only 20% of enterprise small cells will be directly managed by network operators in 2020.
While I wasn’t able to attend the conference sessions on this topic, I had several useful sidebar discussions. The situation isn’t good – planning authorities and local bureaucrats are blocking deployment with paperwork, process and payment issues. Some see this as another easy way to raise money, asking for many $1000s in annual rental to use a street pole. Others insist on individual planning applications for every single node, rather than accepting them within the so-called “de minimis” rules for insignificant changes. Houston was mentioned a couple of times as a city that desperately needs them, but where progress has been completely halted.
Where some visionaries see the benefits of smart cities with ubiquitous cellular service, those which fail to encourage and enable small cell deployment won’t be as attractive as a desirable location for the future businesses. Fortunately, we are seeing more enlightened city authorities take a more proactive and positive view elsewhere.
High Density Deployments
I moderated a couple of panel sessions which included managers responsible for popular locations such as stadiums and university campuses. The cost of providing free, high quality Wi-Fi is substantial with equipment needing to be refreshed to the latest standard every few years. Other costs include policing against abuse (one University takes firm action against those downloading unsuitable material), attack (almost one a minute), and outages (a hundred trouble tickets a day). Wi-Fi is an essential part of their service, and unthinkable not to be available throughout stadiums.
American Airlines run their business on a secure, private Wi-Fi as well as cellular. They find the cellular gives wider coverage, out onto the airport aprons, but the larger sector sizes with DAS mean greater disruption when there is an outage.
The luxury of well planned greenfield deployment
Tariq Amin from Reliance Jio, a greenfield LTE only network shortly to launch across India, enthralled the audience. Free from the shackles of legacy deployment, combined with the vision and freedom to invest in back-office tools, their vision is to avoid any and all paperwork through the organisation. Every plan, work order, purchase order, commissioning test and acceptance report is handled online. All field staff have a tablet that tells them where to go next, what to do, how to do it, then reports progress and tracks issues. SON is used to automate provisioning of every new cellsite and integrate it into the network. RF planning tools predict coverage, with reporting tools highlighting areas needing enhancement.
The audience was impressed to hear they are already achieving a deployment rate of 300 cellsites per day. This impressive number became even more credible when measured against the target of 1700. A total workforce of 70,000 puts this in context. The current plan is for some 100,000 cellsites, split between macro and urban small cell.
Uncertainty and chaos within today’s US cellular business
Although AT&T CTO Krish Prabhu gave the keynote presentation, he wasn’t able to reveal much real direction or firm technical decisions regarding small cells. He sees them being primarily indoors and “below the clutter”. All US operators are going through a major shake-up at the moment, with the regional structures of both AT&T and Verizon being radically streamlined. Sprint has seen the greatest change, with a new west coast HQ taking over from split sites in Kansas City and Virginia. Many of the older “Bell Heads” are being retired to make way for the “Net Heads”. During the transition, there’s a certain amount of chaos and confusion. We should also note two major acquisitions by ATT in Mexico and their merger with DirectTV.
- You thought that 60GHz point to point backhaul had to be tightly aligned didn’t you? SiBeam were demonstrating technology with electronic alignment that works up to 45 degrees either side, reducing the time and precision required during installation.
- Acceleran originally focussed on TD-LTE small cell designs, but are having success with FDD as well. They commented that porting software between the different chipset platforms is really much easier than before, enabled by the FAPI interface.
- Rural small cells always seemed to be very limited in numbers. Softbank have 4300 live across Japan.
- Parallel Wireless announced a timing and sync solution that far exceeds the frequency and phase tolerances required for LTE-A. Their rural small cells now support both 3G and 4G.
- Wi-Fi Calling. It’s clear that all US operators will launch this within the next 6 months, primarily for coverage. A concern is that when used elsewhere, the strongest Wi-Fi signal doesn’t necessarily mean the best/most suitable access point, resulting in a poor customer experience. This means it can’t be trusted as much outside the home.
- Avren's Small Cell World Series continues with regional events next year, starting with Dubai in January. A joint event with GSMA is planned for Brazil next year, new for that region. I hear that next year's major London World Summit event is likely to be brought forward to 3rd week of May and the venue is under review.
- I've captured what I thought were the key messages from the event and space precludes including every detail. If I've overlooked or misrepresented aspects, please comment below (no registration required).