Unti recently, in-building RF planning tools have typically been desktop PC based. Canadian company iBwave has migrated its desktop solution onto a tablet, making it easy and accessible for use in the field. We spoke with Benoit Fleury, iBwave's VP Product and Innovation, to understand the potential of this approach and explore the realistic limits of the size and type of building design possible.
What is the scope of iBwave Mobile Planner and who exactly uses it?
iBwave Mobile Planner runs as an Android app allowing real-time input of possible Small Cell locations and immediate visualization of the coverage and data throughput footprint. Typically a building floor plan will first be imported or created, then small cell equipment selected from the components database which includes fully modelled small cells and related equipment from a wide range of vendors. Upon rapid visualization of the coverage and throughput footprint, small cell placements can be adjusted to achieve the desired results. Additional site information can be captured after which the final design is uploaded for storing and future use.
Closely located cells can increase capacity at the expense of reduced range and footprint. Direct visual feedback allows the designer to refine and improve the solution, discussing alternative placement options with the building owner during the initial survey as required.
We've aimed this tool to be used in the majority of Enterprise Small Cell deployments, either directly by the mobile operatorss own staff, 3rd party sub-contractors, system integrators, IT personnel or even building owners themselves. Design and planning activities for larger and more complex venues should be done, or at least validated, by RF engineers using a more advanced desktop tool such as iBwave Design. However the majority of buildings, such as smaller office buildings, have relatively simple requirements which can easily and quickly be handled with less qualified field personnel.
Even for smaller buildings which may only require one or two small cells per floor, the need for design and as-built documentation is very important. This has to cover not just the small cells themselves, but also the cabling, networking equipment and other related components making up the complete in-building network. A key reason for ensuring proper documentation is to be able to reference it down the line when upgrades are needed, such as for increasing capacity or upgrading to new technologies. Often installations aren't built precisely as originally designed and that's why it is important to record these deviations (the result being documented "as-built") and recalculate the impact on the RF plan.
When field-based RF planning is not required such as larger complex venues where RF planning is performed remotely by a more advanced desktop tool, iBwave Mobile can still be used to capture and document the details of each DAS antenna or small cell. This is then exported into a desktop planning tool for more complex designs. A simpler version of the tool, namely iBwave Mobile Note, provides this function and uploads the records in a central cloud-based storage area or optionally a management platform such as iBwave Unity which provides more advanced functionality such as report generation.
What minimum skill level is needed to use Mobile Planner?
We've taken a different approach from that used for larger desktop planning tools. We felt we should aim it for field technicians who already know basic IT principles and are familiar with Wi-Fi access points. They only need to specify what the KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) need to be for an building design. An example could be specifying the required data throughput for the majority of the floor layout as a site parameter.
Some operators we work with are keen to use the tool to ensure consistent design quality. That is why we have recently launched a 1 day training course which brings users of iBwave Mobile Planner up to speed with what they need to do to achieve good small cell designs. We'll develop this course into a more formal certification program in due course once deployments become more mainstream and the market requires it. Certification has to be fully accepted throughout the industry, so it's important to implement it at the right time. We've used this approach in the past and it has worked well. For our iBwave Design toolkit we also have a 3-level certification program to ensure this consistency of in-building design quality. Operators worldwide now insist that in-building designs are submitted with appropriate iBwave certification according to the venues' complexity.
What industry insights can you share regarding take-up of Enterprise Small Cells?
Take-up varies between different regions around the world. Although not yet in mainstream deployment, we can see that several operators clearly have aggressive plans. We've seen a lot of activity in the US and several APAC countries, with some European operators showing interest.. There's quite a lot going on behind the scenes, with a few privately having quite large targets. A large number of operators worldwide are planning or trialling OEM equipment with many pilots going on today, but mainstream deployment is only in pockets at present.
I would estimate a 6-12 month window for mainstream take-up of Enterprise Small Cells. We will see more multimode 3G/LTE small cells in that timeframe, some are trialling those today although many operators will proceed with 3G first.
We feel our market timing with iBwave Mobile Planner is spot on without being too early nor too late. Ongoing iterations and refinements resulting from trials and feedback worldwide will allow the tool to become well tuned to support the volume ramp-up of leading small cell operators, which for several is happening very shortly.
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