It's that time of year again, when we (and many other analysts) reflect back at the year gone by and look ahead at what developments await us next year.
First, let's put ourselves in the spotlight and revisit our predictions from December 2013, see if we got them right, and look at how the Small Cell industry might evolve next year.
Revisiting last year's forecasts for 2013
We've attended many industry events and interviewed many industry players this year, giving good visibility of the progress being made and allowing us to report back on progress. (You can read our individual event reports here.)
Let's work through the predictions from our 2013 End of Year Report Card
1. The Small Cell Ecosystem will expand in scope. We'll see a wider range of suppliers and services developed to meet growing market needs. This is especially true for aspects linked to deployment and outsourcing such as planning, site acquisition, commissioning and management. There will also be innovations promoted which use more unusual technologies.
Undoubtedly true, but perhaps not entirely in the way I originally envisaged. Yes, conferences are talking more about site acquisition (e.g. Advertising hoardings, street furniture), deployment logistics, equipment, in-building RF planning tools etc. But we've also seen the term "small cell" adopted by other architectures, from DAS, DRS (distributed radio systems) and the future goal of Network Function Virtualisation. It seems everybody now accepts there will be many more small cells, delivering huge capacity gains through spectrum reuse, but there remains uncertainty of exactly what form these might take. The Small Cell Forum reports 12% new members, including several DAS vendors and saw growing participation from Ericsson and Huawei.
2. The way we use Wi-Fi will evolve dramatically. Some operators will take more control of smartphone Wi-Fi, turning it on and off without the users knowledge or involvement. Passpoint and Hotspot 2.0 will improve access and use of commercial Wi-Fi services. Quality of service and the commercial benefits to all parties (building owners, operators, end users) will become more important issues. We'll also become more aware of its limitations.
The majority of data traffic served to smartphones is now sent over Wi-Fi, but >95% of that is at home or in the office. Fixed and Mobile operators are deploying significant numbers of Carrier Wi-Fi hotspots, but my own experience is that these are still not yet delivering a seamless experience to match that of good mobile networks. It's still a pain to connect to Wi-Fi when out and about, with uncertainties around security, compatibility and performance. There are solutions to these problems, but they are not being adopted quickly.
The integration of Voice over Wi-Fi as a seamless service on mainstream smartphones could be a significant milestone for greater Wi-Fi adoption. Some think it will affect sales of residential Femtocells, but we are seeing forecasts for 3G and 4G residential shipments increasing for 2015.
3. The first "Small-Cell-As-A-Service" commercial deal will be announced. The telecom industry is very conservative at times, so I wouldn't like to predict more than a few. I thought we'd see a deal in 2013, but it looks like operators aren't making that leap. Once their focus shifts from early LTE launch, we should see growing attention to Small Cell options.
There are several companies actively offering solutions today but the only one I can point to publicly is Cloudberry in Norway, using their own 2.6GHz spectrum with Cisco gear. Operators seem to prefer to stick with tried and tested DAS at the moment.
4. Multi-mode small cells will be commercially available from several suppliers. The first will be deployed, but most sales will be single mode 3G or LTE (with Wi-Fi).
The big news is that the mainstream RAN vendors have all announced multi-mode products, with commercial availability dates spread through 1st half 2015. Ericsson, Huawei, Alcatel-Lucent (and I would expect soon also Nokia) all have 3G/4G/Wi-Fi products actively promoted to the market. Spidercloud's E-RAN actively supports both already, and they've announced deals with Vodafone and Verizon. Cisco can also add both technologies to it's Wi-Fi access points. There remain many excellent 3G and 4G only small cell vendors too – not all small cells will be multi-mode by any means.
5. Increased revenues will start to flow throughout the Small Cell industry, from equipment vendors to services organisations. Many companies who have made heavy investments for many years will start to reap the benefits of their persistence.
I think it's fair to say the money tap isn't yet flowing as strongly as the industry would like. Urban small cell deployments are deferred in favour of more spectrum and expanding existing macro/micro sites to their full potential. Large in-building investment has favoured DAS systems, perhaps because they are (a) a known quantity and (b) multi-operator.
|Small Cell Ecosystem expands in scope||Yes||More focus on deployment issues. Surprisingly, Small Cell Forum membership has not increased significantly (although some members are more active than before)|
|The way we use Wi-Fi will evolve dramatically||Not yet||The technology and commercial aspects are in place, but it's not reached mass market yet.|
|The first "Small-Cell-As-A-Service" commercial deal will be announced||Yes||Disappointed not to have seen more activity here. A lot of inertia to adopt what should be a cost-effective option|
|Multi-mode small cells will be commercially available from several suppliers||Just about||Announced from the major RAN vendors for 2015, but relatively few multi-mode products available so far.|
|Increased revenues will start to flow||Yes||Some increased volumes in residential (e.g. Free France, North America) but the more lucrative Enterprise and Urban segments have yet to ramp up. Significant budgets still being spent on DAS and Urban macro/microcell densification.|
ThinkSmallCell Predictions for 2015
1. Increasing residential femtocell shipments will surprise. Challenging incomers, such as Free France, TalkTalk and BT could ship substantial numbers of products (several million), including many 4G only. Much depends on whether you believe Voice over Wi-Fi removes the need for residential femtocells – a view that these operators don't seem to share.
2. Enterprise Multi-Mode products become mainstream. With all the major RAN vendors developing commercial multi-mode small cell products, this shouldn't be too difficult to predict. Perhaps some of these are running a little behind schedule – we had expected more to be available this year – but it's clear that all vendors see the potential to address millions of non-residential buildings.
3. Small Cells adopted for diverse range of use cases. We've seen complete "network in a box" solutions from several vendors, leading to unusual and innovative applications (such as an airborne mobile network). I think we can expect to hear of some pretty exciting and varied use cases next year.
4. Nomadic Wi-Fi expectations change. Some operators will take more control of smartphone Wi-Fi, turning it on and off without the users knowledge or involvement. Quality of service and the commercial benefits to all parties (building owners, operators, end users) will become more important issues. But we'll also become more aware of its limitations.
5. The value of VoLTE will become apparent. Some analysts think that VoLTE isn't a good investment and won't lead to greater returns. For many it's a necessary evil, others believe the quality will differentiate their service. Where used, it's important to have excellent LTE service and this may encourage more filling of coverage holes by whatever means possible. Some network operators will stick with 2G/3G for voice instead.
6. Phase timing for 4G will become a baseline. LTE-Advanced features such as eICIC (sharing resources between small cells and macrocells to avoid conflict) and eMBMS (LTE broadcast/multicast) require very accurate phase timing alignment throughout the network. Many technologies promise to achieve this. Most operators will conclude they need to build this capability in from the outset.
7. Asian companies will continue to do well, increasing export opportunities and widening the choice of suppliers, especially for 4G and 4G/WiFi indoor products.
8. The impact of TD-LTE will become more apparent. With huge deployments in China, Japan and India, this technology will take a growing share of the infrastructure market but not impact other regions at this stage.
9. Location/Position Finding/Presence, especially indoor, will become an important capability. Whether that's computed from Wi-Fi, cellular, bluetooth or other techniques - a variety of applications will make more use of location data where available, increasing its importance.
Have you got any other/different predictions for the year ahead? Have I missed anything?
Why not add your thoughts with a comment below.
(You can even do so anonymously)
For those in Small Cell marketing, we'd be happy to discuss opportunities to work more closely during the year ahead, helping create and prepare marketing materials and/or communicating through our website. There's still time to make a difference for your MWC 2015 campaign.
For our readers, we also offer a range of more in-depth services ranging from tailored training classes to a telephone briefing service for those wanting to discuss industry trends and their underlying factors in more detail.
Lastly - Happy Holidays