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 2011, see if we got them right, and how they might evolve next year.
1) HetNet and Small Cells become buzzwords (somewhat superseding the term femtocell which remains more associated with residential products)
It seems to me that this is very much the case. All the major infrastructure vendors talk about their HetNet solutions, which include both large (macro) and small cells. The word femtocell has mostly been left with residential products, although I still hear the term Enterprise Femtocell from time to time.
The result is perhaps a slight lack of clarity about what is included (or excluded) from the term small cells. Specifically, I've heard some operators differentiate clearly between residential femtocells and small cells – i.e. they don't see residential femto as a type of small cell. I've also heard some analysts describing different classifications for metrocells – some include both indoor and outdoor varieties, while others associate the term metrocell only with outdoor types.
Next year, I predict that we'll see more clarity about what the terms mean. Gordon Mansfield, the new Small Cell Forum Chairman, specifically identified this as an important task to ensure everyone is driving towards the same solutions. I'd not be surprised if the term femtocell is restricted to residential products.
Not everyone shares my view that urban public access small cells used outside the home and office should all be termed metrocells, but it makes sense to me. With enterprise/business small cells ranging in size and capacity from small to large, it remains to be seen whether the term "enterprise femtocell" is retained or replaced by one or more terms. But I'm confident we will have a clearer and more widely accepted set of definitions and use cases during 2013.
Regardless, all these types of products will benefit from "femto-technology" – the pioneering engineering features from self-configuration to system-on-a-chip that have evolved over the last few years.
2) Commercial launches continue with over 50 operators live by end 2012
Up fro 37 to 46 during 2012, according to the latest Informa report. Residential femtocell launches were relatively easy to track, because most operators publish these on their websites. It's more difficult to monitor what is and isn't happening for metro, rural and even enterprise space. For example, Vodafone Spain seem to have removed any reference to their enterprise "Voz Y Datos" femtocell launched mid-2010 from their website, so I'm not entirely clear if that's still commercially available. There may be several metrocell deployments in commercial service today that haven't been publicly announced.
Hauwei's withdrawal from the residential femtocell market a year ago may also have limited or even reduced the number of commercially active residential femtocell operators over the last year.
The latest Small Cell Forum quarterly market report, compiled by Informa, continues to be upbeat. Their forecast increased to 91 million units (of which about 86 million are residential) by 2016. Infonetics have also recently published their analysis, indicating strong growth partly enabled by integrated femtocell products (i.e. combined with broadband modems, set top boxes etc.), forecasting that a third of all residential femtocells will be integrated by 2016.
There are considerable differences of opinion about such forecasts, so we arranged a Femtocell Analyst Forecast Shootout webinar, where three leading femtocell analysts explained and debated their viewpoints.
I expect there will be many more metrocell trials and launches during 2013, with growing uptake of in-building enterprise small cells.
3) Metro-Femto deployed in at least 3 countries
Firstly, I'd say the term "Metro-femto" has now morphed into "Metrocell". The thirst for more mobile broadband traffic capacity continues to grow unabated, doubling traffic levels in many countries. Korea Telecom saw a tripling of data traffic over the last 12 months alone, and NTT DoCoMo predict a further increase of 12x by 2015.
Operators now widely accept that small cells, and specifically metrocells, are an essential part of the solution to the data capacity problem. A recent Small Cell Forum Survey confirmed this with 98% of respondents in agreement.
The result is many metrocell tests and trials in progress around the world. I heard of each major vendor being involved in many tens of trials, ranging from Mexico (where iusacell plan to deploy 500 next year), USA (Sprint, ATT, Verizon all have ambitious investment plans), Europe (Telefonica, FT, Vodafone, TIM all actively trialling), Middle East, Asia (Korea, Japan, Australia) and I'm sure many other countries I'm omitted.
These are likely to convert to live network deployments during 2013, with the hottest topic/uncertainties being
- Small Cell wireless backhaul options, especially for the last few hundred metres: Many different technologies are being trialled, more are being developed, a few will achieve mass market deployment and the resulting low costs required.
- Whether the mainstream infrastructure vendors (Ericsson, Huawei etc.) can bring out suitable products and solutions in time, or allow new entrants (Alcatel-Lucent, NEC, NSN, Cisco etc.) with more developed metrocell products, solutions and expertise to grab a share of the market.
- Whether new commercial outsourcing arrangements will be more suited to metrocell deployments, with 3rd parties (e.g. cable companies, tower companies, fixed line operators) installing and backhauling small cells on behalf of one or multiple network operators. The logistics of small cell deployments are significantly different to those of macrocells, requiring substantial adaptation and changes within the network planning/operations departments – perhaps outsourcing some of these activities would be smarter.
4) First LTE femtocell solution deployed
We've seen tremendous advancements in LTE metrocells, with thousands deployed in Korea by both KT and SKT, with Contella and Qucell both capturing substantial market share. Japan is following closely behind, with the major US operators announcing ambitous plans for the next few years.
5) Dual Mode 3G/LTE small cells demonstrated but not deployed
The industry has a roadmap towards fully integrated 3G/LTE small cells, with the first models being two separate boards "sandwiched" into the same physical box. Some vendors have a modular approach, designing products which accept plug-in modules that will allow easy upgrade and/or expansion to new technologies.
I've seen demos from mainstream 3G femtocell vendors, who are working towards commercial product launches in 2013. They generally believe this will meet the market demand (and expectation).
Some of the LTE small cell vendors on the other hand, have gone the other way. Nokia-Siemens explained to us how they added a 3G option to their LTE only product, responding to market demand.
But first past the post is NTT DoCoMo, who recently announced the world's first dual mode residential 3G/LTE femtocell, expecting this to be on sale before the end of 2012 and thus meeting this prediction. I'm unaware of any other operator offering an LTE residential product, partly because it would need a very good broadband internet service in the home.
My expectation is that there will be relatively few other residential LTE femtocell launches next year. The only other product I've seen so far of this type is from Fujitsu, who showcased theirs in the summer.
We've looked at this in more detail, and you can watch our webinar on the topic that also covers metrocell backhaul.
ThinkSmallCell's 2012 Scorecard
|HetNet and Small Cells become buzzwords
(somewhat superceding the term femtocell which remains more associated with residential products)
|Yes||Reflects wider industry acceptance of small cells, albeit metrocells rather than residential|
|Commercial launches continue with over 50 operators
live by end 2012
|Very Close||Fewer new residential femtocell launches, but plenty of interest for metrocell/enterprise for capacity|
|Metro-Femto deployed in at least 3 countries||Yes||Huge numbers of trials in progress. Live in UK, Korea and Japan|
|First LTE femtocell solution deployed||Yes||DoCoMo launch residential LTE femtocell, but thousands of LTE public access installed in Korea so far|
|Dual Mode 3G/LTE small cells demonstrated
but not deployed
|Very Close||Many vendors demonstrating working prototypes, mostly "sandwich" of two separate boards; DoCoMo announce dual-mode residential femtocell with December 2012 availability|
ThinkSmallCell Predictions for 2013
- Metrocell backhaul is going to be one of the hottest topics for 2013, as operators try to figure out the cheapest, easiest and quickest ways to connect that last few hundred metres. Expect the first commercial deployments of radical new technologies.
- Deployment of new Wi-Fi features such as Passpoint and Hotspot 2.0 will start to make use of Wi-Fi even more seamless experience. However, the blazingly fast speeds of LTE (where available) will reduce the desire to seek out Wi-Fi hotspots quite so much.
- DAS (Distributed Anntenna Systems) will continue to have their place, but we'll see growing interest in Enterprise Femtocells (if that's what they're still called) to address in-building service.
- 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. If they are seen to work well, many others will follow in due course. The UK may be the trailblazer for this concept.
- Multi-mode small cells will be commercially available from several suppliers. The first will be deployed.
- The first LTE-Advanced small cell will be demonstrated.
- The LTE feature eICIC will be commercially deployed in at least two countries, significantly reducing interference issues.
- Data traffic levels will double (again), but more significantly the uplink data traffic will grow even faster.
- Data roaming rates will continue to be punative outside the European Union. LTE roaming won't be introduced – you'll continue to be limited to 3G when abroad.
- The first VoLTE (voice over LTE) commercial service will be launched. Most LTE operators will continue to run with CSFB.
Have you got any other/different predictions for the year ahead? Have I missed anything?
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