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What to see about Small Cells at Mobile World Congress 2015

MWC 2015 logoAround 85,000 delegates, exhibitors and press will be heading towards Barcelona for next week's Mobile World Congress. For those with interests in Small Cells, we've picked out a few topics you might want to keep a lookout for based on past experience and the latest press announcements.

It's all about meetings now

Don't confuse this event with a conference. Some would say it's no longer even an exhibition. The focus is primarily on face-to-face meetings, with a key metric for most marketing teams being how many they've setup. Whether that's the most useful time for all parties remains to be seen. My schedule, like many attendees, is already full to bursting.

Many exhibitors will be tied to their stands all day, hosting back-to-back meetings. In the past, when I ask what exhibitors think of the event, I've often been told they haven't seen any of it outside those four walls!

So where possible, I'd recommend setting aside time to browse the huge range of exhibits and see what's new and how the emphasis has changed. The venue is very large, similar in size to many international airports, and time-consuming to move between halls. There's even an overspill to a second venue (the old site in the city centre connected via shuttle bus) with exhibits focussed on 4YFN (Four Years from Now).

I'm not a great fan of the conference aspect itself and have rarely found the presentations worthwhile. I'm sure there will be some outstanding ones, it's just so hard to identify which these are and which are most relevant to your own interests. The keynote speeches at the start of the day are open to all (subject to space). Frankly, I hope they're better than last year's mostly lacklustre ones. Some can be viewed by webcast live or afterwards.

Overall Main Themes this year

The hot topics exciting the industry this year noted by other analysts include (in no particular order):

  • Mobile Payments: The US has embraced ApplePay while Europe has had chip-and-pin for many years and already has many contactless payment cards in use. The question is whether the mobile operators have again missed out and been bypassed by nimbler footwork from other industries. Some solutions are embedded in the SIM card, while others (e.g. Apple) aren't.
  • Smartphones and other devices, with all eyes on whether Samsung's S6 likely launch during the event. Wearables will undoubtedly feature strongly. There will be strong debate on which wireless technologies are appropriate for the Internet of Things (IoT). Again - it's about what proportion of the IoT use a SIM card and cellular networks, a market segment called  "Cellular IoT".
  • SDN and NFV. Still somewhat confusing terms to many, and wider implications yet to be fully understood. When applied to the RAN (Radio Network) it's all about spectral efficiency, single vendor solutions rather than multi-vendor spectrum reuse proffered by independent small cell vendors. When applied more widely to the core network, part of the appeal is to open up the ecosystem using many opensource components and standards, enabling third party applications and services more easily. Both Ericsson and Huawei will be promoting the concept of a Digital Telco, with fast service development/deployment and real-time customer interaction.

Other more technical topics I expect to be highly visible include:

  • Voice, especially VoLTE and VoWiFi
  • LAA (Licenced Assisted Access using LTE in unlicenced bands)
  • Carrier Wi-Fi (although not seen very much on this as yet)
  • Apps and the surrounding ecosystems
  • M2M (Machine to Machine) devices and applications
  • 5G, although the requirements and timescales remain vague

Small Cell Forum presentations and release

For a number of years now, the Small Cell Forum has used its booth space to run a series of presentations from members about all aspects of the topic. These are free to attend, and although small, you can usually find a seat. The full presentation program is listed here and it's worth planning ahead. Several are repeated on different days.

The Forum will also be releasing their next tranche of documents. Release 5 is focussed on Remote and Rural, covering everything from small villages to oil rigs and even moving transport such as ships and trains.

Start off around Hall 7

Many of the specialist companies with small cell infrastructure products are exhibiting here. You'll find small cell vendors such as ip.access (featuring consumer based location services using their "presence cell") as well as some wireless backhaul companies such as CCS (who are ramping up production) and Dragonwave's AvenueLink.

Planning tools vendor Ranplan will be showing off their new tablet planning app, looking to compete head-to-head with iBwave who have had the strongest market visibility and leadership to date. There's clearly a market for these in-building planning apps, where tablets dramatically streamline the onsite planning and design process.

You'll also find much of interest in Hall 5, with more wireless backhaul and fronthaul vendors such as CBNL, Ceragon and eBlink. Relatively slow deployment of urban small cells have limited public announcements in this sector. Siklu, the 60/70/80 GHz point-to-point backhaul, announced their partnership with Alcatel-Lucent, and a case study backhauling Baltimore Carrier Wi-Fi.

Government funded export teams in many countries often support their local businesses by co-ordinating a section which hosts a mix of small to medium sized companies. The Israeli section is always worth a visit, and you'll find others from UK, Ireland, Canada, France, South Korea and elsewhere.

Spidercloud have moved from the shadows of the foothills next the Ericsson section to the sunshine between Halls 5 & 6, so you can't miss them. They've just announced full LTE Carrier Aggregation at 300Mbps, added Bluetooth (for both local maintenance and location based services) and reinforced their dual-operator support. Also, publicly adding Warid of Pakistan alongside Vodafone and Verizon as named customers. It's nice to see some momentum building up there.

Airvana, who have LTE In-building systems for both residential and large Enterprise are focussing attention on their new Device Management System, which builds on their experience of running very large small cell deployments. They've identified and dealt with many of the issues that only become apparent at scale. Airvana already supports one other vendor's small cells and they would be happy to handle large multi-vendor deployments, even including those without their own. Amdocs will also be promoting their small cell deployment system, which plans, project manages and triggers activation to streamline rollout. They announced a partnership with ip.access for that last month and tell me it's attracting a lot of interest - you just can't use the same slow manual processes that were adequate for macrocells.

Hall 3 for the larger players

The big guns and much larger stands are found here. Major vendors such as Huawei, Alcatel-Lucent, Nokia, Samsung, Cisco, Amdocs, Intel and others will show off their extensive range of wares. Hall 2 also features several of the larger players including Ericsson. The wider scope of these stands dominates all aspects of mobile service. No doubt the expected new Samsung S6 smartphone will be stealing the limelight. As usual, Apple and Google don't exhibit at all.

Sometimes the small cell element is tucked away in a corner of the booth, but I'd hope that's less of the case this year. A major theme for these large players continues to be SDN and NFV. While these technologies can seem very attractive for overall network efficiency, I'd caution against potential vendor lock-in for the long term. Read our recent discussion about how that could affect future mergers and acquisitions.

Earlier this week, Microsemi launched their IGM-1100i in-building timing solution which radically reduces the cost of installation. Rather than using an external GPS antenna, common across many in-building cellular systems (DAS, C-RAN or Small Cell), they've developed a self-contained master clock that works entirely indoors and will be showing this off in Hall 2. They will be discussing the whole topic of Enterprise In-Building timing & sync in our webinar on 31 March.

And for something different - maybe next time it can be a virtual visit?

Those familiar with Sheldon from "The Big Bang Theory" may recall his "Shelbot" - a prototype robot-cum-videoconferencing solution that could transport him around the office while he stayed at home. Not for the first time, it seems someone has made this into a real product, the Beam Pro Telepresence Robot, and demonstrated this at CES2015. It could also allow your boss to telecommute and "walk the floor" talking face to face with employees. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, some will choose to telecommute to MWC although I still think it's hard to replace the real-life experience and unplanned extras.

Clearly, wireless connectivity would have to be extremely reliable and capable to support this type of application.

Summary

If you are one of the attendees, I hope I've given you one or two ideas to consider during the event. If not, there will be plenty of media coverage to access remotely. The key is to plan your route and meetings well in advance, but allow some time off for casual browsing. If you find the event overwhelming, do look out for our show report where we'll try to pick out the most relevant themes and developments specifically related to small cells.

Apologies if I've omitted anything significant. I've only listed a few companies as examples and don't comprehensively include all those in each sector.

Feel free to comment below on anything you think I overlooked.

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