Interview with Gordon Mansfield, new Chairman of the Small Cell Forum, Dec 2012

Gordon Mansfield Small Cell Forum ChairmanGordon Mansfield, the new Small Cell Forum chairman, also owns AT&T's small cell program. He kindly spared time at the Small Cells Americas conference to share his views on how the industry is addressing small cells, the main issues to be dealt with and how the Forum can accelerate that process. From a practical implementation, he revealed an astonishing 10-fold stability improvement after AT&T upgraded to the Iu-h interface standard throughout their network, which (some analysts estimate) serves an estimated 1 million residential small cells - branded as AT&T's 3G Microcell.

How is the Small Cell Forum evolving?

Firstly, let me say that Simon Saunders (the previous Forum chairman) has done a fabulous job, expanding the scope of the Forum from the few earliest vendors to engage a comprehensive ecosystem. Our new name, the Small Cell Forum, reflects just how much the ecosystem has broadened – for example, we've recently welcomed backhaul vendors into the fold.

Looking back a few years, the original members were very much femtocell centric. Today, we can see a much broader set of use cases for small cells for which we need to get clarity. Every region and many operators appear to have a slightly different set of needs, and somewhat different understanding of terminology. So we need to start mapping out a common set of scenarios, boiling these down into some four to five simplistic use cases. This is exactly the same approach which had worked well for us back in 2008 for the initial femtocell standards. I'd like to see us using these same principles again to find commonality.

Mike Schabel (VP Alcatel-Lucent) hit the nail on the head during his conference speech when he said that each region has different requirements, but maybe we're all trying to solve the same problems.

I believe that achieving this clarity is essential and is needed to drive the Forum agenda.

Which areas do you expect the Forum to be working on most?

The home and enterprise use cases are fairly well covered. We'll need to start looking at public access for coverage or hotspots and that's where there is some initial work to do, after which we can then say what's necessary or not. Some existing femtocell technologies will play a part, but maybe we'll also need to expand our use cases to look at technologies for dense venue-like applications (e.g. sports stadiums etc.)

In order to do that, we need to drive engagement with a broader ecosystem. We'll be looking for new members to participate – not just the traditional femtocell players, but OEM's, over-the-top multi-vendor SON (Self Organising Network) solutions, indoor repeater technologies etc. This wider view will all be good for the Forum, and encourage more operators to engage and become involved.

As a member driven organisation, we can then reference the broader use cases of the small cell solutions on offer.

What plans will the Forum be making for the year ahead?

Engagement is at the top of our list of priorities for 2013, we really do want to expand to cover a much broader eco-system I mentioned earlier. The marketing workgroup is developing a comprehensive plan to continue outreach across the industry. We want to increase awareness of who we are and what we do – for example, some operators didn't know that the Forum meets at the same place as the Small Cell conference series. We've tried to make ourselves more visible and accessible during the event, with simple changes like using different coloured lanyards to identify all Forum executives.

On the technical side, we want to improve interoperability. I've heard some people talking about barriers to entry. We want to get the full ecosystem to understand the value of interoperability, so that any small cell vendor product can be served by any macrocell vendor gateway.

Why the drive for interoperability? Is it simply about driving costs down?

Competition will help drive down costs, but also expand the choice on offer.

A more visible benefit for us at AT&T was the quality. When we implemented the Iu-h standard (the open interface between femtocells and gateway) across 100% of our network, we saw a 10 fold improvement in stability. This is because there are a lot of mechanisms included in the standard that many smart people had thought about and put into it. Proprietary extensions can be useful if they start from that base, but in my view purely proprietary systems can be less good.

What's happening with the administrative changes to the Forum structure?

The Forum has never really had a full time employee. Even Simon Saunders wasn't technically full time, although he worked so hard it may have seemed like it. As of now, we've recruited Graham Wright as our full time CEO.

We've also replaced the chairman/vice-chairman structure with operator representatives. I'm supported as Chairman by regional vice-chairs in Europe (Alan Law, Vodafone) and Asia (Yoshihito Shimazaki, Softbank). We all want to bring to the table more views representing what other operators want and think. In this way, we can drive a truly global view representative of the industry.

Graham Wright, as CEO, will be supported by Andy Germano as Vice-President. He'll enable a wider outreach and we'll be looking not just for increased membership but increased participation. I've personally sent out a communication to the operator community to keep them more informed about what's going on and which topics we are discussing. We want to encourage participation by those who recognise its importance.

Recently, we've seen huge growth of Wi-Fi, especially Service Provider Wi-Fi. How do you see that evolving alongside Small Cells?

The view of Wi-Fi has changed significantly over the last couple of years. Although, Wi-Fi can quickly become overburdened thereby degrading the user experience, it has become a key means of carrying smartphone traffic. Furthermore, mobile operators simply don't have enough spectrum to deliver the best broadband experience using just licensed small cells and macrocells . As such, we need to use both Wi-Fi and licensed spectrum. However, to make this work most effectively we need some dynamic management that balances the load and manages the Quality of Experience, ensuring that the end user gets the premium quality service as appropriate.

We've setup a strong liaison with the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA). We're looking at all the capabilities that already exist today – Passport, Hotspot 2.0, ANDSF etc. These mechanisms are all available to do this from the static perspective, but we need to be able to do this on a real-time basis. This needs intelligence in both the network and handset – neither could do it alone. The device has no idea what's going on in the network, what resources might be available etc. The network has no idea what the device can see. So we expect to develop something that is network assisted, allowing the device to make an intelligent choice. Operators would have some input, and could enforce some of their own priorities. But the end user must be able to make their own choices, such as choosing to use their own home/office Wi-Fi or when visiting a retail or similar venue.

Any other hot technical topics in progress?

Our LTE activities are going like gangbusters. There's a larger share of activities going on in LTE today than 3G now, including the X.2 interface. We're evolving e the FAPI to support LTE-Advanced and continue to see vendors adopt it.

The next interoperability plugfest (our 5th so far) will focus on LTE. When we announced this at our last meeting, we already had firm commitments from a significant number before the end of the week, indicating the relevance and strong support to do this type of activity.

Other activities include expanding 3G into outdoor environments and interoperability between 3G and LTE. We're also continuing to evolve the end-user services opportunities – once you densify the network using small cells, it opens up the services you can run on top.

And finally, any related reports or follow up documents for our readers to digest?

We've just this week published our updated quarterly small cell market status report for December 2012. This includes results of a new operator survey and a real-world case study:

  • The survey found that 98% of network operators see small cells as being essential to their future business.
  • The case study, from Vodafone Greece, explains the 3G hotspot freezone. Similar in concept to the free Wi-Fi at Starbucks, a small cell is used to provide free 3G service in partnership with retail establishments.

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