Interview with Simon Saunders, Chairman of the Small Cell Forum, February 2012

Simon SaundersHaving just rebranded the Femto Forum into the Small Cell Forum, we met with Simon Saunders, Chairman, to learn how the repositioning has gone, find out what the new scope will mean and learn about their plans for the year ahead. With Small Cells bound to be one of the hottest topics at next week's Mobile World Congress, this work program addresses many of the top issues on network planners' minds today.

How has the rebranding of the Femto Forum into the Small Cell Forum gone so far?

The Femto Forum has always been a progressive organisation, continuously evolving as we looked at applying the technology in other places. We've engaged industry consensus among operators to promote the use of femtocell technology outside the home into enterprises, public spaces and rural areas.

A major motivation for the rebrand has been a growing confusion in the marketplace. The initial reaction has been very positive and the new positioning has been well received. "Incredibly logical move" and "why was this not done before" have been typical of the feedback to date.

The practical impact of the new brand is that while it reflects the activities we have already been doing, it removes any confusion about terminology; for example when we've extended into applications which overlapped with similar names, such as picocells.

Do you foresee any changes to the membership profile?

We expect there will be some changes and we will appeal more strongly in some areas than before. Ericsson, a Femto Forum member for some time although not a strong advocate of residential femtocells, has now been elected to the board. Backhaul vendors, who would not have found residential or enterprise femtocells relevant, are looking to join up. Wi-Fi system vendors are also getting involved.

And are Wi-Fi hotspots now included in the Small Cell Forum scope?

Let's differentiate between the term "Small Cells" (which I would say includes Wi-Fi) and the remit of the Small Cell Forum. Our remit emphasises the elements of licenced spectrum, fully managed nodes and edge-of-network cells. There are other bodies that focus on Wi-Fi directly and we don't want to duplicate their role. We're certainly not against Wi-Fi and where synergy exists then we would either work on this ourselves or co-operate with others.

Looking ahead, what are the main activities which the Small Cell Forum will focus on?

Our work program for the year ahead is quite comprehensive. Here are the main topics:

1) Multi-Standard infrastructure, such as combined 3G/LTE and Wi-Fi is a major topic of great interest to the industry. There is growing demand for single small cell products that can concurrently handle all three radio technologies in a single box. This theme already coalesces with the work we had been doing on LTE and will be a significant work item going forward. Aspects will include how to manage the total capacity of a network across different radio access technologies.

2) LTE: There is more focus on outdoor and public access LTE small cells at this stage, rather than residential. We have been developing a baseline of equipment classes, a matrix which will match the class of device against different environments. This will clarify the requirements of each class for capacity, parameter sets and information interchange between network elements.

3) IOT [Interoperability Testing]: There is a growing demand for testing capability which goes beyond the current sequence of Femtocell Plugfests. In the future, we could expect some form of certification capability although we (the Small Cell Forum) are not about to announce a certification scheme and have no aspirations to become a certification body ourselves.

4) Backhaul: Small cells, especially, LTE can require a substantial amount of backhaul transmission capacity to deliver their full capability. [Ed Note: Backhaul is the transmission link between the small cell and the network central switching centre/central office]. This means there is a serious risk of not meeting customer expectations or commercial goals if the backhaul doesn't match the RF capability. There is no perfect single solution – a mix of different technologies such as copper/ fibre, Point-to-point/Point-to-Multipoint and Terrestrial/Satellite will fit different environments. We expect to publish case studies and guidance on how to deliver the right number of small cells in the best locations so that the capacity, system availability and economics all stack up. Finally, backhaul doesn't just provide transmission capacity – timing and synchronisation are equally important. We've just setup a new subgroup to study this topic, which is important for LTE and especially so for TDD-LTE and this is starting to attract more participation.

5) Services: We've published extensions to the API announced in March last year, making it richer. We are also working to have this embedded into the wider industry standards – the recent announcement with the OMA is the first with more to come.

6) Multi-Operator: Network sharing has become widely adopted through the mobile industry worldwide, with many physical cell towers shared between several networks. While small cells can be deployed as a differentiator (especially in corporate/enterprise deals where most of the customers would be tied to that network), some operators are pushing hard for a similar move to share small cells. This would allow the same small cell to deliver service for multiple networks using their own spectrum. There is relatively little included in the standards today. While perhaps we would see early designs based on "duct tape style" multiple independent small cells sharing a common box and communications/management, the longer term vision is for a truly integrated totally shared capability.

7) Ongoing Solutions: We will continue to support the existing 3G femtocell solutions and encourage growth. This involves publishing case studies, sharing best practices for deployment and ensuring we understand fully the issues preventing wider takeup. For example, we don't believe that interference (between small cells and macrocells) is an issue for commercial deployment for those who have looked deeply into the technology. We've published several studies and reports on the topic and don't believe that further research on better interference management algorithms for 3G is essential to deliver a high quality of service. However, the issue still crops up. When discussing with operators we have found the issue relates more to management of the macro and femto equipment, and are working towards making this issue better understood and easier to address.

We will again have a strong presence at Mobile World Congress 2012 next week in Barcelona. Visit our FemtoZone at Hall 1 stand 1G19 where you can see a range of free presentations and showcase demonstrations. There is also a chance to win a PS Vita. The Small Cell Forum website continues to host a wide range of technical and commercial papers that are freely available to download. You can expect further press releases during the event and more material to be published throughout the year ahead.

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