ThinkSmallCell Interview with Rob Soni, CTO for Small Cells Alcatel-Lucent

Qualcomm Alcatel Lucent logosRob Sobi, CTO of Small Cells for Alcatel-Lucent, explains the scope and purpose of their new joint initiative with Qualcomm including what both parties bring to the project. He also provided an update on their 3G metrocell program, with insights into some of the real-world deployment status and issues.

I confess that when I originally saw the Qualcom/Alcatel-Lucent announcement, I thought this meant that a completely new product range would be developed which superceded and replaced the existing Alcatel-Lucent small cell solution. That's not the case, with this new 9963 product targeting the indoor enterprise segment which Cisco, Spidercloud, ip.access and others have been focussing on. This will complement their existing 9363 indoor products.

 

What's the scope and purpose of the Qualcomm small cell partnership?

"Alcatel-Lucent have jointly agreed with Qualcomm to develop and bring to market a new product range of small cells. These will be targeted for indoor enterprise use, and won't initially replace our residential 3G femtocell or outdoor Metrocell products. They'll handle triple mode 3G, LTE and Wi-Fi all in the same box. In the longer term, this might expand into the residential market and perhaps later into the Metrocell arena.

"The specification will include:

  • One 5MHz 3G HSPA carrier
  • Two 20MHz LTE FDD carriers
  • 802.11ac Wi-Fi

"It will run on Qualcomm's latest energy efficient silicon platform which delivers both 3G and LTE within the power budget of standard PoE (Power over Ethernet).

"RF transmission power levels for each of the 3G and LTE carriers will be up to 250mW.

"This is based on what our customers are clamouring for and we believe meets forecast market demand. We've had especially strong feedback related to using Power over Ethernet – connecting through a single cable that provides both power and data connectivity simplifies installation.

"We believe we are not the only ones to see this developing market opportunity. There has been a lot of visible investment from our competitors, notably Cisco through acquisition and Ericsson with their recent Radio Dot announcement."

What are the timescales?

"There has been an aggressive effort from both companies to ramp up the staffing and resource for the project, with plans for equipment suitable for customer lab testing in the middle of 2014, and GA early 2015. The small cell uses Qualcomm's FSM9955 chipset, which is already sampling but will be fully GA by January 2014."

What does Qualcomm bring to the party?

"The three S's:

  • Silicon
  • Software
  • SON (Self Organising Networks)

"Qualcomm's silicon is very power efficient and helps meet that tight Power over Ethernet requirement. Many other silicon vendors, even those with separate handset chipsets, haven't achieved such a low total power budget for the same functionality. Qualcomm, who dominate the smartphone RF chipset market, have brought their expertise to bear with remarkable results.

"They've also brought many unique features which optimise system efficiency, reduce interference and increase throughput. This is achieved through a combination of silicon, firmware and software, delivering many aspects of SON (Self Organising Networks) which are essential to provide an efficient and effective solution.

What about your Metrocell product line?

"This continues as a separate product and development team. It is our long-term ambition to simplify and merge our platforms but we have no immediate plans to combine the two projects.

"We have over 20 metrocell trials ongoing today and are heavily involved with a major, well known US operator in New York City. As we've said a number of times before, many of the issues in real world metrocell deployment don't relate to the specific equipment itself, but the logistics, planning etc. around it. The large number of trials with a variety of operators worldwide has allowed us to acquire extensive practical experience of the issues involved. We know what kinds of issues to expect and have a range of solutions and workarounds to address them.

"Scalability is very important. We are working on Metrocell deployments of 1,000 sites or more. These lead to large numbers of interactions between both the small cells and existing macrocell layer which need to be handled faultlessly to provide the same (or better) mobility experience as before. This includes very high numbers of mobility events (handovers, location updates etc.), large numbers of cells (neighbour lists, provisioning, configuration etc.), reducing macro to metro "ping-pong" (handover and handback between the two layers) while achieving high levels of system availability in a variety of operating environments.

"We are seeing that our customers want to put metrocells in places regardless of where the incumbent macro vendor is installed."

What is the next major feature which might affect small cell rollout?

"We can see that large scale deployment of VoLTE (Voice over LTE) will come later this year or early next year (2014). This has a consequence on the quality of service provided over LTE – where percentage failure rates in low digits might be acceptable for a data service, this would be very noticeable to users using a voice service. As a result, we are already starting to see operators change how they manage their KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and vendors for LTE. By the time we see mass deployment of metrocells for LTE, I believe these KPIs will go up appreciably.

"Our customers have also noticed that end users are running their own speed tests everywhere on their smartphones and comparing results. RootMetrics and similar applications have become very popular. Where our customers can see they achieve better KPI metrics scores than their competitors, they are very happy. If not, they want to do something about it. Overall, perceived user experience is beginning to drive technology decisions about where and when to invest in new RAN equipment."

How does this change the way radio planners work, and how networks are managed?

"Voice and voice dimensioning has been fairly straightforward over the last 10-15 years. I have met some people from so-called data-oriented mobile networks in a similar way. They simply deal with capacity expansion by identifying where and when the user experience drops below 150kps or 300kps and then add a new carrier to the basestation for that sector.

"But today we understand that some operators have been advertising 5Mbps service available everywhere.

"This has led to operators sending their engineers out to measure actual performance onsite using SpeedTest or Rootmetrics tools, especially at very busy events (e.g. in the US, the Obama inauguration, major sports games etc.) They then analyse the results and react. What they often find is that even with 200 subscribers actively online at the same location, not everyone is doing something useful – the resulting traffic usage can be very bursty.

"Where a few small cells are installed with 100m of coverage, this can achieve very efficient offload from the macrocell. Initially, you don't need to deploy huge numbers of metrocells to make quite a big difference. Subsequently, you can determine if deploying a cluster of them is worthwhile."

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