Huawei sees a definite role for small cells, both indoor and out. Peter Zhou, their President of Small Cells product line, shares views on their market progress, timescales for LAA and reveals an unusual form factor for the future.
The pace of adoption for urban small cells is far behind early analyst predictions. Are they still required or has their time already passed?
We believe that outdoor small cells will become more important and essential. We also often see a lot of traffic concentrated into a small number of areas (Pareto's principle of 80% of traffic in 20% of the area), which is best dealt with by small cells.
Outdoor small cells could be either low power RRH (Remote Radio Heads) or low power BTS (Small Cells). We offer both. The choice varies between countries and networks. Some operators prefer RRH where they have abundant fibre resources to meet the high bandwidth, low latency required. In Europe, many operators lack access to low cost fibre which defeats the business case.
Even where fibre is physically available, it may not be commercially viable. For example, Orange France can't use their own fibre because the wholesale price is calculated on the bandwidth – if you need 10Gbps it becomes very expensive. They must charge themselves the same price as to any other communications provider.
The main holdup is site acquisition. I don't think we lack sites; the industry lacks effort. Operator organisations find it easier to continue to work with their traditional business model, expanding capacity through existing macrocell sites. But if we want to boost this kind of business, then either the operators will have to change their behaviour to address this more effectively, or this would be outsourced through third parties. Huawei call this "crowdsourcing small cell deployment".
What's the potential for Enterprise Small Cells?
I think we need both coverage and good service experience to continue to improve. It doesn't make sense to have a fast 4G outdoor experience that degrades to 2G indoors.
Within the Enterprise sector, the major constraint is whether the operator has access to enter the building. This is easier to negotiate directly with larger venues and buildings, where only a few parties are involved. For SMEs, where you may have tens of thousands per country, it's simply not possible for operators to ask admission to each building individually. I would see instead that could be done indirectly by local IT people using a picocell.
Multi-operator support was an issue when Enterprise solutions such as Huawei LampSite and Ericsson Radio DOT were first brought to market. In some situations, operators may prefer to save costs and share a DAS system. However, we are now seeing the business case for Mobile Broadband has changed significantly – where before voice coverage was enough, now data capacity and performance are needed. This can justify additional investment for a single operator Enterprise deployment even where DAS already exists.
For example, in the largest Shanghai airport at Pudong, all three Chinese operators share the DAS system costs proportionally based on usage. This year both China Mobile and China Unicom are considering installing their own dedicated LampSite systems, initially targeted for the VIP section and a few high traffic areas. They can justify this commercially from savings on DAS, but it also provides a better service for their VIP customers.
It's important not to view Enterprise small cells purely for good voice service and fast data connections. We need to see more VAS (Value Added Services) indoors, such as location based services, advertising and other useful aggregate metrics. Huawei's Service Anchor enables a wide range of applications and creates new business opportunities that go above and beyond simple communication services.
How quickly do you see LAA (Licenced Assisted Access) becoming available?
LampSite today can support LAA at 5GHz and in future all our small cell hardware designs will support it. A number of countries already permit it (USA, Korea, Japan, China etc.) and there is no standardisation needed. I think we'll see this appear first in the USA when supported by a terminal chipset from Qualcomm.
In Europe and other regions, 3GPP will need to standardise a "Listen Before Talk" feature which is expected before the end of 2015.
I predict that 2H 2016 will see the LAA business commercially launched and that it will become more popular during 2017.
Can you share any insights on what small cells will look like in the future?
We've been working on a future oriented Surface Node Series concept. This takes the shape of a flat screen TV, comprising a large array of antenna. This provides truly massive MIMO, anything from 8 to 128 separate transmit and receive paths, together with 3D beamforming. We have already tested 16T16R and built a prototype with 128T128R which can achieve data-speeds of over 1Gbps. We will be field-trialling at least up to 16T16R with operators later this year.
We think this could start to become commercially deployed in perhaps three years, in advance of 5G.
The motivation behind this concept is not just technology, it's business oriented. We need to have different form factors to adapt to different sites in our urban environment, making them easier to acquire – on walls, inside/behind advertising hoardings etc. These will be much easier to blend in with the environment that many of today's more prominent antenna formats.
Any closing thoughts?
We believe small cells are a must for every outdoor network. We understand that in the part, outdoor small cell hasn't been seen as that successful to date. Site acquisition has been the main difficulty but we don't think that's because sites aren't available. Hence our crowdsourcing small cell site initiative.
Densification of the network is very important for the end user experience and key to business success.
Different scenarios in different countries do require different products. We aim to provide a comprehensive set of options to address that.