Informa's Small Cell Global Congress this year was somewhat of a smaller affair than Avren's Small Cell World Summit, with perhaps around 100 to 150 delegates overall. This will be the last year of this standalone format – from next year it will be combined with their Carrier Wi-Fi event. Spidercloud and Huawei were the only two radio equipment vendors who presented there. A wider range of complementary service and product vendors rounded out the exhibition area.
It seemed to me that two main topics dominated this year: Enterprise/In-building and Metrocells/Urban Public Access (specifically wireless backhaul). Although there was a dedicated backhaul stream, this topic was also included in the main conference.
A quick poll of the audience found they thought small cell industry progress was broadly proceeding as expected, with Enterprise small cells now a priority ahead of outdoor public access. They confirmed that for outdoor small cells, backhaul is perceived to be a bigger issue than integration with the radio access network.
Enterprise Small Cells
Jim Parker, Senior Manager at AT&T's Antenna Solutions Group, reminded us that AT&T spent $20 Billion on CAPEX last year and will invest the same again this year. [Ed Note: That's around $200 per subscriber – more than the total revenues of many operators elsewhere]. They continue to see dramatic growth in data traffic, with 3x growth through Carrier Wi-Fi in the last 12 months from their 32,000 Wi-Fi hotspots. Their Project Velocity will invest $14 billion over three years to include 1,000 new DAS systems and 40,000 small cells before the end of 2015. A case study of 10 sites across the Disney properties used a mix of 25 DAS, 350 small cells and 40 repeaters, with the primary motivation to reduce customer churn. Today, their small cells are 3G only but during 2014 would become tri-mode 3G/LTE/Wi-Fi and will become "the dominant technology of choice in the densification of our network".
Jim explained why he liked neutral-host DAS (Distributed Antenna Systems). Once installed with a venue owner they rarely churn, but it also allows AT&T to split the cost with other operators. However, the high cost of DAS systems prevents them addressing more customers. He believes there is a huge untapped market ripe for cost effective solutions using small cells to meet that need. Part of that relates to a more "plug and play" installation approach, benefitting from SON (Self Organising Networks), where ideally a small cell could be shipped directly to an Enterprise customer for them to self-install.
Rob Reardon of Cellcom, a small Wisconsin operator, cited three reasons why small cells hadn't taken off already:
- Cost (specifically that smaller operators couldn't afford the gateways)
- Pride (RF planning departments are perhaps too attached to traditional methods)
- Time to market (perhaps we were too early).
He then described some practical examples of campus buildings which have benefitted from small cell deployment. Their local university at Oshkosh had some 800 Wi-Fi hotspots but only needed 7 small cells to achieve full cellular coverage. They are proposing to fix the University Wi-Fi network for free as part of installing the small cell system. It was thought that far fewer Wi-Fi access points would be required if planned properly. This doesn't seem to be unique - another campus venue had 1400 hotspots!
He also quoted a cost of some $10 million for a DAS system to equip their local football stadium (capacity 80,000) which is only fully used about 12 times a year. Even when the cost is shared with two other operators, this simply isn't financially viable. Apparently the NFL (National Football League) has mandated that all large stadiums must have good cellular and data service by next year. I'd like to think that a small cell solution could prove itself, both financially and technically, in this type of application.
Spidercloud have just announced that their Enterprise RAN small cell system has been extended to include both 3G and LTE in the same box. Ronny Haraldsvik, their CMO, was upbeat about the very short installation times required – "we are equipping new offices almost daily" - and now have working systems in three continents. Vodafone Netherlands publicly announced they are offering their system last month.
Huawei presented their pRRU solution for larger buildings, which is more akin to a DAS solution because the baseband processing is centralised at a macrocell in the basement. It's similar in concept to Ericsson's RadioDOT, but is available today and already working in their UK headquarters. They call this their LampSite solution, but it is intended for indoor use and shouldn't be confused with outdoor lamp-post metrocells.
Metrocells/Outdoor Small Cells
Marieke Fijnvandraat of KPN Netherlands has been studying the wider implications of practical metrocell deployment for some time. She ran through a "laundry list" of issues to be addressed, broadly grouped in three categories of technical, commercial and regulatory.
KPN have identified four classes of busy traffic areas:
- Dense indoor, such as offices
- Large public outdoor, such as busy pedestrian streets
- Large public semi-outdoor, such as transport hubs with a lot of stationary people
- Outdoor events, such as festivals
She emphasised that outdoor metrocells aren't just for lamp posts, but could be fitted outside retail shops, bus shelters and many other sites.
Stefan Sporri from Sunrise, Switzerland revealed just how much traffic levels are concentrated in the cities.
- Cities have 17% population, contributing 27% traffic
- Towns have 36% population, contributing 42% traffic
- Villages have 43% population, contributing 28% traffic
However, he commented that it's possible this could be self-fulfilling if due to a lack of network coverage rather than demand.
Their main bottleneck today (in the macrocell network) is backhaul, where they are investing heavily to migrate to full Ethernet IP, with datarates up to 1Gbps being needed for their busiest sites. Like many other operators, they had upgraded to Single RAN macrocells and are actively refarming their spectrum. Small cells are being trialled for capacity.
Small Cell outsourced services
RadioAccess of the Netherlands was exhibiting their small cell management system. Vodafone Netherlands has outsourced their small cell activities to them completely, including managing a dedicated Network Operations Centre, provisioning and maintaining the end-to-end system. Currently, this involves 3G residential femtocells (the so-called Femtoplug from SagemComm) interworking with the Huawei femtocell gateway using the standard Iu-h interface. They also provide operational management and deployment services for NEC's LTE small cells which have been installed in many Vodafone retail shops – so you can be sure of getting a great LTE service when being shown the latest smartphone. RadioAccess have developed their own in-house small cell performance management and monitoring system, and are offering this as a service to system integrators in other countries.
Caroline Gabriel of Maravedis-Rethink believes that Small Cells as a Service could become quite big in 2-3 years time, having heard that more operators are considering this option now that they are more aware of how different the deployment process is.
Aaron Partouche of COLT highlighted the greater demands on backhaul timing from LTE-Advanced, suggesting that a managed solution approach which included these parameters could be a good fit.
Summary and Take-Aways
It would be easy to leave this event with a somewhat confused message – there was quite an unusual mix of speakers, exhibitors and messages. It was noticeable that many mainstream small cell industry players were absent.
Overall though, I felt that there were some clear takeaways:
- The two hot small cell applications today are Enterprise/Indoor and Metrocell/Outdoor
- The Enterprise sector is likely to see the most rapid takeup, because there is a real untapped demand. Operators need to be more sophisticated in packaging and solution selling to the different vertical market segments, but the technology is there and works.
- There is a clear contrast between the technical solutions offered by mainstream macrocell vendors (Ericsson RadioDOT, Huawei LampSite) and the standalone or group controlled small cells.
- Backhaul remains one of the biggest challenges/uncertainties of metrocell deployment, but there are many other non-technical aspects.
- Outsourcing remains on the agenda, as operators recognise that small cell deployment and management is a different business. This was demonstrated by Vodafone Netherlands outsourcing their small cell operations entirely.
- A wider range of ancillary and associated services and tools are coming in to play, from performance management, RF planning to system integration.
An event like this covers a wide range of topics, vendors, operators and other industry experts. My apologies to those I omitted from this report due to lack of space.