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Cisco's Big Thinkers ponder the implications of Small Cells

Cisco LogoCisco released a series of video recordings earlier this year, featuring a number of selected thought leaders from both within and outside the company. To save you time, we've reviewed and condensed the content into a shorter digestible article. Some of their comments aren't unique (so it's nice to hear they are aligned with others in the industry), while other viewpoints highlight a different perspective seen from other more traditional vendors.

 

Market vision

The network will continue to evolve, with macrocells being augmented by 100Ks or millions of small cells. These will be mostly indoors, where 80% of the traffic originates. Within this context, Wi-Fi is seen as just another radio access where users can't tell the difference. Clearly there are regulatory differences between these technologies – Wi-Fi is limited to 100mW radiated power compared to a maximum of 20 Watts for a macrocell.

These small cells won't just add capacity, but additional layers of vertical services such as security, Unified Communications and Social networking. Small cells have already radically changed how we can behave. An example would be installing Service Provider Wi-Fi at a concert in a large stadium. Previously, you wanted to share the experience with friends but couldn't do anything, even make a phone call. Six months later, the stadium has been lit up with Wi-Fi and could do everything, being fully connected. Streaming live video to your friends is now quite feasible.

There is plenty of potential to create additional value in small cell investments, e.g. FernBank, who have installed interactive applications for kids at museums using location technology. When driving in, the app welcomes you to the museum, walking into great hall triggers the roar of a dinosaur based on location. It's all mapped to the application, and linked to environment.

Different business models have been developed for Wi-Fi

The expectation of free Wi-Fi at many venues has led to a range of creative business models. Several of these could be adapted and used for cellular services. One example is highly targeted location specific ads, where the short range of small cells can pinpoint users to within a few metres. The rate per thousand ad impressions can increase from $10 to as much as $380 in specific situation. Real-time analytics can be packaged and presented to venues in ways that deliver 10x value of insight for 1/10th the cost.

Mobile networks can save 2 to 5 dollars per GByte by offloading traffic to wholesale Public Wi-Fi networks. Around 1/3rd of users are accessing Public Wi-Fi once a week.

Broadband wireline operators can reduce churn by 16-17% (according to one survey in North America) by bundling free public Wi-Fi.

Integrating licenced and unlicenced (cellular and Wi-Fi) standards

There is now a comparable amount of licenced and unlicenced spectrum available. Both cellular/licenced and Wi-Fi/unlicenced are great technologies. What we have to do is manage the boundary conditions when we put them both together. The end user should perceive a seamless handover in either direction.

Cisco see standards as absolutely critical, and are at the forefront for both Wi-Fi and cellular systems – Small Cell Forum, 3GPP, WBA, Future of Wi-Fi, LTE.

There needs to be network selection policy management so that devices can decide which hotspot or cellsite to use based on user preference, device experience and operator requirements. HotSpot 2.0 authentication experience should be on a par with cellular (i.e. transparent), so that cellphones automatically connect in a similar way as they do today with GSM.

They are looking further at how to remove the friction of how people connect to Wi-Fi and move forward with customers and partners to evolve that capabilities and use cases to integrate Wi-Fi and cellular licenced solutions.

SON – Self Organising Networks

SON is critical to small cells, where we need to manage the interference between them. It's essential to solve the 1,000x challenge (increasing wireless data capacity in an area by 1000x).

SON is one of the most over-abused terms in today's marketplace – we might liken it to FMC (Fixed/Mobile Convergence) of 10 years ago. There needs to be a different mindset of operating networks. It's a bit like getting a computer to land the 747 Jumbo – previously totally unthinkable and considered highly risky, now a common day occurrence. We need to pull out the intelligence of what's going on inside the network and re-organise it through SON technology. There are two types of SON technology - one is network-level (C-SON = Centralised SON), all the way from the end node throughout the entire network. The other is purely RF optimization (D-SON = Distributed SON). Cisco believe that it is this network wide view that's essential for optimal performance throughout.

In some situations, such as large numbers of outdoor locations when sharing the same carrier frequency, you can't just put small cells out in the network and turn them on because they might interfere with the macrocells. In other situations, such as when using indoor low power femtocells, this may be less of an issue. You have to look at factors such as the congestion in the network, which can occur for different reasons. There's no point in installing a small cell network unless you have SON to ensure it works optimally.

You can't look just reuse the same back office processes used to deploy and manage macrocell networks. These need to scale up dramatically to as much as 500 installations a week if you are interested in deploying 10K's of small cells.

The long term changing shape of the network

We can expect the network to be built out in HetNet fashion. Cells will be inside buildings providing both indoor and outdoor coverage. We'll evolve from a limited number of macrocells to 100K's or millions of small cells that need the same connectivity. In some cases these will share the same RF channels while at other times will use separate frequencies and be less tightly integrated. We will use all cellular technologies and Wi-Fi technologies, using small cells that are tiny and support both.

We are starting to virtualise parts of the network. Small cells by definition support fewer users and so usage patterns have a higher peak-to-mean ratio. There are strong diurnal variations for which elastic architectures are more suited.

The network should be able to adapt to these changing patterns and locations of traffic consumption, potentially reconfiguring/reallocating pieces of the network to be used for back end or front end functions on the fly to adapt to different circumstances.

To view the videos in full length, click here.

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