It's not often we get to interview people who have bought an entire femtocell company. This article is based on the personal views of Charles Kuai, formerly CSO & President of Mobile Broadband for Ubee-Interactive, which acquired a leading 3G CDMA femtocell company Airwalk last year. He outlines some of the key challenges that mobile operators face today, identifies regional and cultural differences and discusses some of the implications for the future.
These are his personal opinions and don't necessarily reflect the official views of any company.
Charles Kuai has an impressive career of over 20 years in senior executive positions in the telecom industry, including executive director for technology and engineering at AT&T Wireless International (now part of AT&T), GM – Wireless Operations for Nortel Networks in Greater China (hundreds of million US$ business) and most recently CEO of Ubee-Airwalk.
During his time at Ubee, he was responsible for overall company strategy and execution focused on growth and value creation. He lead the company to more than double its organic revenue, diversified revenue from Wired to Wireless broadband and completed a successful acquisition of the small cell company Airwalk, one of the few 3G CDMA small cell vendors.
The switch from voice-centric to data-centric telecom services
Up until 2008, the telecom world lived a cosy existence based predominantly around voice. Thereafter, the explosion of new data capable wireless devices caused exponential growth of mobile data traffic also known as mobile data tsunami. While operators have multiple options including gaining new spectrum (difficult and costly) and migration to new technology such as LTE, the long term need will be for intelligent small cells, which are going to be huge in number. In some extremely heavy data traffic locations, we may see up to 100 intelligent small cells for every macrocell.
The most important factor of this evolution isn't that they will simply be smaller but that the deployment and management of large numbers will have to be both innovative and disruptive. The system has to be intelligent enough to drop-in new cells and adapt to changing requirements automatically.
The layout and construction of buildings varies widely in different parts of the world. The suburban sprawl common in North America contrasts strongly with the densely populated central business districts of some parts of Asia. The modern construction of Middle Eastern metropolis allows easy installation of fibre which would be more difficult and expensive in historic European cities.
Urbanisation in these dense vertically built up areas creates an even greater data consumption within a smaller footprint from both businesses and consumers.
In many emerging markets, the wireline penetration is not so widespread and the traditional media penetration not nearly as high. In these countries, we can expect to see OTT players quickly outpace local markets dependent on traditional broadcast media. The emergence of OTT operators will further drive increased demand and consumption of streaming video OTT to mobile wireless tablets and smartphones.
Tablet computers are having a dramatic effect, basically driving more portable consumption of data that in developed countries can often be supplied via Wi-Fi and fixed broadband. Emerging markets may choose not to lay wireline cables and instead go directly to mobile broadband.
Why haven't residential femtocells taken off so far, and could this change?
Femtocells were the first attempt by the telecom industry to miniaturise cellular coverage. The industry has learnt a lot from this about how to build a more efficient and powerful solution especially for public and enterprise venues. There are really three major reasons that have held back more rapid take-up of residential femtocells:
- The business model itself. In some cases, the operators pay for it and in others the consumers pay. If operators fund them, they know where they need to deploy them. Where consumers pay for them, they feel they need something in return.
- Femtocells add a new layer of capacity when deployed in the same frequency band as macrocells. They haven't always been as effective dealing with interference mitigation which affected the end user experience and quality.
- Residential Wi-Fi has played a competitive role, solving the problem for data at a low price point.
Despite this, I still think the overall small cell market will be huge. As the business model evolves and becomes clearer, it will drive growing demand for easily deployable small cell solutions.
Wi-Fi will definitely be an essential part of small cells in the future, and all small cells will need to incorporate both Wi-Fi and licensed 3G and/or LTE. I don't see Hotspot 2.0 as exclusive to small cells, but rather an inclusive feature. It will make Wi-Fi experience become more like cellular and create opportunities for small companies to establish how to improve the end user experience across multiple Wi-Fi and cellular bands. The ability to drop in both licensed and unlicensed spectrum capacity easily and quickly will be a key innovation area.
How important is macrocell and small cell network integration?
This is a tough but interesting question. In many cases, small cells and macrocells will need to share the same frequencies. We've already seen many cool technologies developed to enable this co-existence, including very advanced interference management. The real secret behind future mass small cell deployments will be how to architect layers of macro and small cells so that they are intelligently co-ordinated to achieve the best end user experience. Companies that can solve that challenge will become the disruptors and strong players.
Have the US and some parts of Asia regained the technology lead from Europe for mobile network service?
When you consider the intelligent wireless network of the future, it will include both licensed and unlicensed spectrum capability which will need to be added on an on-demand basis, using solutions that are universally applicable. The hyper-dense city centres of London, New York or Shanghai don't differ that much in terms of wireless network needs for consumers.
Operators worldwide are actively seeking solutions that will allow them to expand and densify their networks, automating the way in which they plan, build and configure them. Some term this SON (Self Organising Networks). I like to call it Intelligent Wireless Networks. This is not 5G, but more about expanding the toolsets by using both cloud computing and analytics to solve problems across both licensed and unlicensed spectrum.
We can expect to see a wide range of innovation of both technology and business models arising to deal with these issues, with contributions and competition on a worldwide basis.
So I don't think Europe/US/Asia are really that far apart and perhaps this is more marketing than reality. In the longer term, we are going to see urban city demands across multiple continents become very similar.