Paul Bruce, Director of Business Development at Node-H, argues that Enterprise small cell technology is technically mature and ready to be exploited. The much anticipated growth of this industry pivots on new business models, whether adopted by existing operators or by new market entrants seeking to address the special opportunities and requirements associated with in-building coverage.
How do you introduce Node-H?
Node-H is an independent software specialist focused entirely on end-to-end Small Cell solutions. Unfortunately there has been a legacy of partial solutions in this industry, which often couldn’t be deployed without substantial additional software investment – sometimes millions of dollars worth – leading to frequent project failure. Node-H, in contrast, provides a deployable binary used on a range of ODM hardware platforms. Our flagship dual-mode LTE+UMTS enterprise solution supports 32 + 32 active users.
Node-H’s largest deployment is with Iliad's Free Mobile network in France, with over 3 million live residential small cells in the network. One is incorporated inside every set-top box shipped.
Are dual-mode 3G/LTE Enterprise Small Cells still relevant since the launch of VoLTE?
An LTE-only small cell improves the data performance, but you can’t ignore the primary mobile application, which continues to be voice calling. Most operators’ VoLTE deployments are in their infancy or limited to specific phones with particular software versions. As such, operators cannot expect LTE-only cells to guarantee effective voice coverage. Providing a partial solution which appears to give coverage, but in fact is not reachable for voice calls, is often worse than doing nothing.
The vast majority of voice calls on LTE networks today are being handled by CSFB back to 3G, or even to GSM in some cases. The high cost and complexity of core network and back office migration means that a complete move to VoLTE may be a distant event at many operators. A multi-mode enterprise cell which offers LTE coverage for normal use, but switches back to 3G for voice calls is the only solution that guarantees full service for all devices within an enterprise. Of course it also supports VoLTE, so it’s the perfect product whether or not the operator wishes to invest in VoLTE or wants to cover the multi-year transition period until widespread VoLTE use.
Is this technology development being matched by new business models?
There is a thirst among new entrants to extend the market beyond the MNO model. Doing this at the level of macro coverage is unlikely, because the higher frequencies of the newly available spectrum will have a range too limited for macro deployment, and also because the scale of investment required for macro is too risky for an unproven business model.
Unlicensed technologies – CBRS and MultiFire as the prime examples – and the demands of enterprises together with a slew of verticals leveraging IoT will enable new business models. At the same time an old business model, selling PBX’s to enterprises, will have renewed vigor with small scale, private, ePC products that support mobile devices that operate both on the enterprise network and on the MNO network. These markets - for capacity, coverage, machine communications and private networks - are naturally well served by small cells.
Is the Small Cell ecosystem now truly interoperable or is there still single vendor lock-in?
There’s no doubt that the industry was held back by proprietary technologies for a number of years, but thanks to the Small Cell Forum and the efforts of major operators, these have now been substantially resolved with inter-operability generally working well. ETSI plug-fests have been useful to test, harmonize and demonstrate that.
Operators have to balance ease-of-deployment versus total cost of ownership. The technology is now simpler to use so it’s easier to disaggregate the small cell from the gateway infrastructure. This approach can result in the lowest cost, so it can be attractive for a large deployment, and it will typically involve an adaptation to pre-existing management systems, saving yet more expense.
Why have multi-operator small cells failed to take off?
Most operators are still not at the point where they have the cooperation agreements to work together on joint small cell deployment, but it will likely come about at some point in the future. The question is whether it comes as a result of the operators seeing the benefit of it and demanding it, or whether it comes in spite of the operators.
Many operators still see the cost of small cells as a way to differentiate themselves in the eyes of an enterprise customer, whereas multi-operator does not achieve that differentiation and therefore needs an alternative business justification.
Interestingly, operators do co-operate on the largest venues using expensive DAS technology – it’s the low investment required for small cells that allows them to be cost-effective even when only a single operator uses them. We are getting indications from operators that they expect neutral host small cells to become commonplace, and they want to ensure that we are ready from a technology point of view, to support them.
In the medium to long term it is perhaps inevitable driven by alternative business models. It will be possible to create a neutral host enterprise CBRS or MuLTEfire network and then plug that into the relevant operator networks. Then the operators who support that will gain business at the expense of operators who don’t. However, that is still a few years away because of device availability.
Node-H is a sponsor of ThinkSmallCell. You can read more about their solutions on their website