Interview with Mike Schabel, VP Small Cells, Alcatel-Lucent

Mike Schabel VP Small Cells Alcatel-Lucent We met with Mike at Mobile World Congress, where he updated us on the recent progress that Alcatel-Lucent has been making in the Small Cell space. He reported progress on their Qualcomm-based joint product development, clarified a recent announcement to work with a DAS vendor and shared his views of the longer term Small Cell market direction.

 

How is your latest Small Cell product development based on Qualcomm technology going?

We continue to work hard and remain on track. We'll be ready for customer lab trials this summer (mid-2014). The first new product will be a tri-mode non-residential indoor unit supporting 3G, LTE and Wi-Fi. It's a very capable product supporting:

  • 2x 3G carriers
  • 4x 4G carrier at 10 or 20MHz - FDD for now, TDD in the future
  • 2x Wi-Fi carriers, both 802.11ac and downward compatible
  • LTE-Advanced Carrier Aggregation
  • Software defined reuse

Our team have been very creative on the design and we've found Qualcomm very innovative and co-operative.

What's your take on Alcatel-Lucent's Small Cell progress to date?

Our 3G residential femtocell business remains a good growth business and has become quite predictable.

What we as an industry did was develop an extremely good solution in the residential femtocell but nobody fully discussed and resolved who was going to pay for it. It's the business model that has held back wider deployment rather than any technical issues.

LTE is different and becoming more interesting. We are seeing some clearer value propositions evolving. Operators have thought through who will pay and are integrating the technology into consumer products. It's not all going to be down to individual consumers to fund these units directly.

While 3G metrocells haven't taken off as strongly as we'd hoped, it has been a very successful proof point to remind everyone that it is possible to do multi-vendor HetNets. We needed to demonstrate that we know how to do multi-vendor and couldn't wait for LTE to be fully adopted in critical markets.

Our 3G metrocells convincingly showed that I can take a 3G picocell with an Iu-b interface and get the same results using a 3G metrocell with an Iu-h interface. That alone has changed the discussions we have today with operators for LTE.

Alcatel-Lucent announced a new solution with DAS vendor TE Connectivity. Doesn't this compete/conflict with your in-house Small Cell solutions?

DAS (Distributed Antenna Systems) have been about providing coverage within a building but this is now moving to address capacity issues. The capacity equation is not an RF limitation, it's a baseband issue. The amount of RF Baseband processing per unit area is key.

The difference between DAS and traditional Small Cell approach is where that RF baseband processing is located. Small Cells incorporate this onboard and so require only a relatively low speed IP/Ethernet connection. DAS systems co-locate this elsewhere, usually in the building basement, and are limited mostly by the cable capacity to each radio node. Typically the data rate to a DAS radio head using CPRI is 50x the user data rate.

Larger buildings justify the higher initial cost of a DAS solution where smaller ones are more effectively served by Small Cells.

The big question today is where do you draw the line between these two approaches.

We've teamed up with TE Connectivity, one of the leaders in DAS technology, to integrate our products with them more closely. Previously, DAS systems connected to the RF output stage of standard macro or microcells. This new solution takes out the [up to] 40 Watt RF stage of a typical macrocell and associated RF attenuator, instead directly connecting the baseband output from our Metrocell to the DAS system using a CPRI interface. While this is similar to architectures from Ericsson and Huawei, it can also be neutral host and support multiple metrocells from different host network operators. The solution is also capable of both 3G and 4G.

This not only reduces the amount of physical hardware needed but the HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning). This means we can move some of the HVAC OPEX costs across to Service Creation and stimulate new revenue opportunities.

How do you see the mix of 3G, LTE and Wi-Fi evolving for Small Cells?

I expect that in the longer term, the higher performance devices will largely be single standard LTE combined with Wi-Fi. These will mostly be located outdoors, especially in dense urban environments.

Indoors, we'll see more multi-standard (3G/LTE/Wi-Fi) Small Cells. Operators need to recognise the aesthetics of the solutions deployed – they can't easily do "truck rolls" inside buildings. We need to avoid the need for site visits for technology upgrades and expand the range of remote configuration options. This is driving us toward "God boxes" for the Enterprise: multi-technology Small Cells which support different generations of cellular (3G/4G etc.) in the same compact form factor.

Another key trend we are following closely is LTE-U, which delivers LTE service on unlicensed bands (such as those used by Wi-Fi). We are proud to be partnered with Qualcomm on that initiative and are committed to doing that in a future release.

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