As we approach the holiday season, it’s once again time for me (and other analysts) to reflect back on the year gone by, revisit our predictions and make some new ones for the year ahead.
Revisiting 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.
A couple of the larger new deployments were delayed: BT’s residential femtocell launch was postponed because they are buying EE. TalkTalk’s progress continues slowly, waiting for VoLTE to become mature since their solution would be LTE only. Free France continued to ship a femtocell with every set-top box. Overall, shipments remained at a similar level to last year with almost no new launches. The industry seems to be waiting to see how well Wi-Fi Calling works, and it was a big surprise when T-Mobile USA (a long time proponent of Wi-Fi) launched their 3G/4G residential femtocell (using Alcatel-Lucent's new product).
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.
Slow but steady progress is being made here, Spidercloud and Alcatel-Lucent both have products that can handle 3G/4G simultaneously. The competition from mainstream RAN vendors is their distributed RAN products, such as Radio DOT and Lampsite, which also support 3G and 4G. AT&T was just one operator who publicly endorse Enterprise small cell technology, confirming it works for even larger sized buildings than they originally anticipated.
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.
We have seen case studies and use cases that are very varied. Defence applications, such as Deltenna/Quortus “Network in a backpack”; Transport applications including the connected car; mobile enterprise computing delivering Apps to the Enterprise. I’d expect even greater innovation once the migration to LTE (including voice) is complete.
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.
I’ve been surprised at how adoption of Wi-Fi is changing. While we’ve seen some “Wi-Fi First” operators such as FreedomPop and Google Fi, many networks prefer to retain customers on cellular (and charge them for it) where they can. Although Passpoint/Hotspot 2.0 technology is proven and supported, it still hasn’t been globally deployed for commercial reasons. If anything, I’ve seen reducing use of Wi-Fi when out of the home/office because good LTE service is more widely accessible. That behaviour differs with age and affordability and region.
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.
VoLTE is gaining momentum and billions of minutes of VoLTE voice calls have been made. Network launches are announced almost every month
The primary reason isn’t better voice quality, it’s to allow spectrum to be refarmed to 4G. Excellent 4G coverage is essential, so LTE networks need to be fairly mature before switching it on.
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.
While often understated, even overlooked, phase timing is embedded today and sourced from at least two diverse methods. Microsemi launched their in-building GPS source; CCS distribute sync transparently through their wireless mesh backhaul; Synchronous Ethernet is becoming endemic. There are signs that some regions have been taking this more seriously than others, with some networks still suffering from high PDV (Packet Delay Variation) through their backhaul networks. If LTE-A is to be fully exploited, more attention will need to be paid to this aspect to avoid expensive retrofits in future.
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.
While there have been few public announcements, Asian ODMs continue to manufacture the bulk of small cell products. A few of the Korean and Japanese brand names remain visible, such as Contela, Qucell, Aritel and Fujitsu. Other less visible ODMs remain an important part of the supply chain.
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.
China Mobile has invested very heavily in their TD-LTE network, no longer growing their huge Wi-Fi public network. Without the restrictive planning constraints of other countries, we can expect a dense layer of Small Cells to follow next. Japan has successful trials of small cells at 3.5GHz. India’s new Reliance Jio network could include up to 40,000 or more urban small cells (believed to be supplied by Airspan).
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.
Indoor location is one technology where Wi-Fi competes strongly with cellular – higher accuracy is feasible today simply because there are many more access points with overlapping coverage. Insights into visitor movements, even in anonymous aggregate form, can provide valuable operational and marketing data.
A variety of technologies continues to compete, from low power Bluetooth beacons, through Wi-Fi and cellular. First Responder/e911 in-building regulations could accelerate take-up, but new rules have not yet been mandated.
I've summarised the current status of the four main Small Cell market segments below:
Looking ahead into 2015
1. Enterprise sector will dominate growth.
2. Neutral host business models will become accepted
3. Municipalities will make progress with their “smart city” strategies, incorporating plans for Small Cells
4. LAA standards will be published, trials will continue, but mass adoption is still some time off
5. Use of prioritised/shared spectrum at 3.5GHz will be important for the USA
6. As VoLTE matures, LTE-only small cells start to become more relevant
7. Wi-Fi will continue to be popular in the home and office, perhaps less so elsewhere. Wi-Gig (superfast Wi-Fi at 60GHz) will appear towards end of 2016 with the promise of Gigabit speeds in the same room.
Have you got any other/different predictions for the year ahead? Have I missed anything?
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Lastly - Happy Holidays