There seems to have been an increasing trend of new Forums and branding around the Small Cell industry of late. We’ve drawn up an initial list below and made some observations about which ones you might take seriously and ask if existing organisations are meeting their members’ (and industry) needs.
Using LTE in unlicensed spectrum
LTE-U Forum. Primarily formed around Verizon’s objectives and names several suppliers. Their website has a few documents and a workshop report from May 2015 but no contact details or evidence of further activity. I suspect that once this satisfies Verizon’s needs, it will quietly disappear.
MuLTeFire Alliance. Driven initially by Qualcomm and Intel, this now has Nokia and Ericsson onboard alongside several Small Cell vendors (Spidercloud) and Boingo Wireless. Not yet seen any operators sign up yet, possibly because they are concerned about the scheme competing rather than complementing their services.
There doesn’t (yet) seem to be an LAA Forum or Alliance yet – I’d say the MuLTeFire Alliance would overlap sharing many (but not all) of the same objectives. MuLTeFire seems to me to be more disruptive to business models than purely just a techincal standard - anyone would be able to setup their own standalone LTE network and potentially become a roaming partner. Perhaps it will evolve to become more akin to the Wireless Broadband Alliance in the longer term.
Neither is there a specific 3.5GHz Forum or Alliance in place yet, although possibly its scope could be covered by the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance (which has been more focussed on TV White Space frequencies). Don’t be confused by Ruckus Wireless OpenG – that’s their own branding rather than an industry wide name. There is already an established TD-LTE advocate in the form of the Global TD-LTE Initiative (GTI), with 123 operator members.
Some would say the Small Cell Forum and 3GPP are where the LAA business champions belong, while others might point out these are consensus-building organisations. We’ll leave Qualcomm and other high profile vendors to make the case for it, which they seem to be making a good job of to date.
Some of the DAS organisations and events have rebranded or extended their scope to include Small Cell technologies. The HetNet Forum, actually a division of the Wireless Infrastructure Association was formerly the DAS Forum. Perhaps this is no bad thing and recognises the wider range of technologies in the market, although I quite like clear focus and distinct terminology.
And there's plenty of related Forums and organisations with which the Small Cell Forum has established dialogue: Wi-Fi Alliance, Wireless Broadband Alliance, Broadband Forum, Metro-Ethernet Forum, NGMN (Next Generation Mobile Networks), Open Mobile Alliance. Most, if not all of these, continue to serve a useful purpose.
There are now so many new Forums and Industry organisations appearing that there are even businesses specialising in launching and supporting them such as Association Management Solutions or Kava Communcations (who provide much of the Small Cell Forum administration). Closing Forums down when they're past their sell-by date is more difficult, and as an example I wonder how much longer the WiMax Forum could and should continue.
I’m often reminded that each industry vertical has its own unique requirements. Stadiums and SOHO offices represent extremes in size, but there are fewer similarities between public venues and private offices.
Several of the larger verticals have their own technology forums which would consider Small Cells and wireless from their own perspective. A good example is Hotel Technology Next Generation
This international body looks at a wide variety of new technologies for the hospitality sector – everything from payment/reservation systems to electronic doorkeys. In-building wireless is an important topic for them at the moment. They’ve published white papers and reports on DAS and Wi-Fi, even specifying broadband traffic levels, but I’ve not spotted anything specific to Small Cells yet. They ran a workshop at Small Cells Americas in November 2015 and are clearly addressing the topic.
5GAmericas. A regional advocate originally founded to promote the adoption of GSM-based technology in North and South America, you could say the organisation has done a very good job. Minority technologies such as IS-136 TDMA, IS-95 CDMA, iDEN and WiMAX are being phased out in favour of a common LTE standard. Rather than creating standards, the organisation lobbies strongly for GSM-evolved technology and publishes a range of useful and relevant documents including statistics. Originally branded 3GAmericas, it’s renamed itself with each new generation and in February updated to 5G.
The Standards Bodies
3GPP remains dominant for all cellular wireless standards. Don’t be fazed by the 3G part – their scope includes 2G, 3G, 4G and now 5G. Arguably it’s done a great job of embracing divergent sets of requirements from different regions, vendors and operators. 4G/LTE has clearly become the global wireless standard, displacing public safety systems, military and private networks. Perhaps it should get low marks for VoLTE, which is difficult to migrate to and where vague specifications have led to little direct VoLTE interconnect between networks.
IEEE standardises Wi-Fi, which the Wi-Fi Alliance then certifies and promotes. Both have encouraged rapid innovation which is one reason why Wi-Fi has grown so quickly. The pace of new features still coming through the system is high.
Consensus-building, lobbying and education
The Small Cell Forum did good work building consensus at an early stage, resolving potential disputes before standardisation work began in earnest. Their extensive library of documentation provides guidance for all, but the real value was in the committee meetings that worked through issues to achieve a common approach. It’s broadened its scope considerably over the years and now has a membership that is no longer purely comprised of niche startup disruptors.
Richard Kennedy, their COO, suggested to me he’d quite like to see some respite from the huge flow of published documents. Perhaps their emphasis should switch to enabling business models rather than technical architecture. To date, they’ve shied away from performing a certification role (such as the Wi-Fi Alliance) which would increase vendor interoperability. They've also embraced a wider scope of technologies, from DAS to Remote Radio Heads, than originally foreseen.
For Wi-Fi, the Wireless Broadband Alliance has enabled seamless roaming interoperability between cellular and Wi-Fi networks through Passpoint/HotSpot 2.0. They’ve documented business processes, roaming agreements and best practice. They also run their own popular conferences. With Wi-Fi roaming no longer growing quite as quickly as expected, the Alliance appears to be taking stock and considering where to focus on next.
Some Alliances and Consortia are primarily oriented around their own events, which can be highly profitable. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that as long as delegates appreciate the context.
Some have voiced an opinion that the GSMA has lost some of its political clout. Their Mobile World Congress event is clearly the highlight of the worldwide industry calendar, alongside a growing high quality web presence, and is what it is best known for.
Clarion, who run the Small Cell World Series, benefit from a close partnership with the Small Cell Forum that has worked well for some years. They continue to dominate the sector and this year are expanding the number of events to six, adding Brazil and China to the mix.
I prefer events with a clear focus and I like the distinction between conference organisers and industry forums. I expect we’ll continue to see separate conferences emphasising each of Small Cells, Wi-Fi and DAS while others provide an opportunity to debate and contrast alternative approaches.
Have I overlooked an important industry Forum? Disagree with the above assessment? Add your comment below (can be anonymous) and I'll update the article if appropriate.