Gordon Mansfield, AVP – Small Cell Solutions at AT&T, has been Chairman of the Small Cell Forum since last September, and we caught up with him before Small Cell World Summit to hear how the Forum has evolved under his new leadership. He explained their Release Program, reveals where the strongest areas of interest are, discusses some terminology confusion and explains how the membership has evolved.
This shows a considerable move of focus from earlier residential femtocells (which aren't going away) onto both Enterprise and so-called Public Access small cells (Metrocells and Picocells).
What's changed at the Small Cell Forum under your leadership?
At Mobile World Congress, we announced our Release Program which is being used to focus and drive the work program within the organization. There is an awful lot of activity going on within the industry, and we have published many Forum white papers and technical studies across various segments. These address many of the questions that arise from across the industry about barriers to entry.
Release One, our first formal milestone, was highly focused to be a compilation of the considerable work to date. We reviewed our entire body of work. Updated it and ensured everything included was fit for purpose. We assembled an overview of the entire Release program in a single easy-to-digest document. And we issued a roadmap document that sets out our release agenda going forward.
Release One also introduced two new papers, on backhaul for metrocells and for rural deployments, to address questions coming in from the industry. We have heard that many people were concerned that the options available for Metrocell backhaul were insufficient, but this white paper shows there are quite a range of options with new alternatives also under development.
The rural white paper demonstrates that there is a valid business case, and even in developing countries there is an opportunity to profit by using rural small cells.
The response has been tremendous and the number of downloads has far exceeded any of our expectations. Since Mobile World Congress we've seen in excess of 11,000 downloads of individual documents with our new backhaul white paper being particularly popular. Download volumes continue to grow week by week.
What's next in the Release program?
Going forward, we want to focus our energy on the work efforts and have drawn up a work program for subsequent Releases. When the Forum started, there were only four workgroups, today with our Special Interest Groups (SIGs) this has now more than doubled to 10. Whenever you have more parties, this creates a broader mix across the ecosystem and you need to have means to focus the efforts of each SIG/workgroup.
Each Release will have a major theme; Release Two is Enterprise which we expect to publish sometime during 2013 (it's not imminent and will be late this year) followed quickly with Release Three on Public Access (probably Q1 2014). These are both being worked on in parallel by different areas within each workgroup.
We are also co-operating with the WBA (Wireless Broadband Alliance) on Wi-Fi integration, but whether this will be ready to include in the Public Access release or be published separately depends on timeframe. I want to make sure that we share results from early adopters as soon as possible. There is a lot of activity by our members on Public Access small cells, from whom we can obtain the data in a quantifiable way to include in the release program.
Where is the strongest area of interest in small cells today?
Today we see the Public Access space is the most talked about because of continuing mobile data growth and new LTE spectrum assets available. These two factors together drive the densification of the network and that's where there is a tremendous amount of focus of small cell technology today.
In conversations I've had with various operators, I haven't seen them abandoning residential Femtocells but their priority is now the Public Access and enterprise use cases. Residential was originally deployed only in developed countries, but now we are seeing tremendous interest from developing countries. Those operators are still at an early stage in their evaluations, and we've had conversations looking both at residential and other small cell options.
In next few months, we will begin to see which areas of small cells new operators will adopt first. I can't say I have good confidence on which way they will go for certain, and it might be Public Access small cells first. In developing markets, it's not necessarily so much of a capacity issue - in some cases it's more about coverage or a little bit of a mixed bag and includes areas where capacity is concerned. Small cells allow these operators to cover areas they couldn't viably reach before.
Is there a problem with different names and scope for Small Cell categories?
There are lots of marketers within the various vendors trying to differentiate their offerings from others, and who create names for products, causing potential for confusion. The Forum has been thinking about this and driving discussion, classifying small cell capabilities based on RF power levels and use cases. We've looked more at what the product is intended to do, such as serving a closed enterprise vs full public access, or RF power levels from 250mW through 5W.
Within our operator workgroup, we have just completed mapping the requirements to different use cases. This is still work in progress and won't be completed overnight. The Forum can't mandate to vendors what or how they market their products, but the operators are encouraged to specify what we want to see in each of the various use cases. This should help clarify what each of the product formats are.
The traditional 3G UMTS picocell wasn't cost effective to deploy in large numbers, then 3G metrocells came out with same RF power and capacity capabilities but reduced transmission requirements which allowed cost effective deployment. This allowed some of the non-traditional vendors to call something of similar product by a different name. Once we get into LTE products – and I look on a daily basis at capabilities of each vendor - there is no difference between picocell and metro cell products.
I'd draw the line at 5W RF transmit power, anything more than that is a macrocell and outside the scope of a small cell.
How is the membership make-up of the Small Cell Forum evolving?
We've seen our membership come from a broadened ecosystem, with new members joining from wider areas. Many wouldn't have considered being members for femtocells only. This has helped us by getting the right players at the table and becoming involved. The operator requirements are by no means done yet, and we need to continue socializing our ideas more through liaisons, to extend and refine them to bring focus across the industry, drive what needs to happen and allow the feature functionality.
If you just look at raw membership numbers, it may not look like they've changed drastically, but when you consider the heavy M&A (Mergers and Acquisitions) activity in the sector as well as some companies who have gone out of business, our numbers are still climbing despite the consolidation. Our members now include DAS vendors, SON players, traditional deployment companies, tower companies, chipset developers, OEMs, innovative players – even down to gaskets and seals. The stretch across the ecosystem has really expanded.
We've also seen that even when companies merge, it doesn't mean that their participation is reduced and we still see delegates from each of the separate older businesses. Participation at plenaries continues to be very good. For example, our Asia meeting in years past had been lower participation, but this year we had really nice turnout.