The three sizes of business justify different small cell technical solutions

Three sizes of enterprise small cellMobile network operators derive more than 30% of their revenue from busineass customers, and competition is fierce to sign up this attractive market segment. Operators typically have their own direct sales force, selling into the largest businesses while using dealers to resell into small and medium enterprises.

The demographics of business size are similar for most developed countries, with a small number of very large businesses complemented by a large number of very small ones.

For example, below are business population statistics mapping the number and size of businesses in the UK, which shows that a relatively small number of large businesses employ almost half the private sector workforce. There are also a huge number of small to medium sized businesses.

Employees Businesses Percentage of total businesses Percentage of total private employment
1-9 (Micro) 1,022,695 82.3% 19.2%
10-49 (Small) 177.950 14.3% 17.3%
50-249 (Medium) 29,750 2.4% 14.5%
250+ (Large) 6,455 0.5% 48.6%

*Excludes sole proprietorships and partnerships comprising onluy the self-employed owner-manager(s) and companies comprising only an employee director.

*UK Department for Business Innovation and Skills, Business Population Estimate 2012 (Oct 2012)

Market Demand

While network operators can and do compete on price, a major differentiator is network performance – both coverage and capacity. It's not unusual for a network operator to commit to improved network service as a condition when winning a new business customer. With so many employees now working from home, or simply being prepared to check email and/or take calls from home outside normal working hours, the question of residential coverage is equally important.

Indeed, it is claimed that a large percentage of typical employee usage occurs in the home and office – Geir Ove Jenssen of Cloudberry estimates this makes up around 70% in Scandinavian countries with their mature and ubiquitous cellular usage patterns. While some employees are indeed highly mobile and make many trips out of the office and/or area, most calls are made when stationary and many employees spend more time in the office than out.

One size does not fit all

The needs of the different sizes of business can be addressed in different ways. Let's look at each of these in turn:

SOHO – Small Office/Home Office and micro-businesses

A SOHO business may be run from a household, and may have only one or two full employees. Their needs would be more than satisfied by a 4 channel residential small cell. Where data is used, whether via Wi-Fi or 3G, it's likely to be limited by the internet broadband connection (often of less than 10 Mbit/s) than by the 3G small cell.

Micro-businesses, defined as those with up to 9 employees, are equally well served by a single small cell. An 8 channel residential femtocell should be more than adequate, since the chances of all 10 employees being on calls simultaneously is negligible.

In some cases, the business might occupy physically quite a large space or the building could be constructed from materials with poor radio attenuation. This would justify the use of a higher RF powered device. Alternatively, two small cells could be installed at different ends of the premises. This might require some additional configuration because most residential femtocells are not designed to share the same broadband internet.

The issue of handover between small cells isn't significant. It's far more important that users understand the limitations if making calls when actively entering or leaving the building – typically calls wouldn't be handed over when entering the building – although this is a relatively unusual use case.

Given the low cost of a residential femtocell, this is a relatively quick and easy method of improving customer satisfaction. Once the small cell is installed, there would be an incentive for other household members to switch to the same operator and enjoy the improved coverage and performance.

Small to Medium Enterprises

There are a large number of businesses in this category, defined as employing up to 50 (small) or 250 (medium) people. Numerically, they comprise 16% of all businesses, making up 32% of all private sector employment. Some are packed into a cramped office environment; others are dispersed across a large factory area.

Businesses of this type typically have their own dedicated high capacity broadband internet connection, which may be re-used to support the small cell traffic. Alternatively, the usage may justify installation of a dedicated DSL or other broadband connection by the mobile network operator to ensure known performance and throughput.

There are slightly different demands on the small cell products targeting this market segment:

  • Higher traffic capacity per small cell, of some 8 to 16 active channels.
  • Slightly higher RF power than residential to handle larger offices/factory areas and provide a larger footprint
  • Multiple small cells are likely to be needed for larger premises and to carry the total traffic load

As the users are moving around the building, they will expect seamless service. This requires both overlapping coverage from the small cells, clean handover of calls and sessions, and ideally some intelligence self-optimisation which can vary the cell sizes to apportion available capacity to match demand. Ubiquisys promote their "Femto-Grid" technology where each small cell communicates with its neighbours directly.

In some cases, the network operator would optimise the hand-in from the outdoor macrocell network by (manually) configuring the neighbour lists of the macrocells. Users could then continue calls seamlessly if in progress when entering the building. Some optimisation of the small cells serving the main entrance/exit should also improve the hand-out scenario, seamlessly transferring active sessions when leaving the building.

Large Enterprises

This class of business, of more than 250 employees, is numerically small (fewer than 0.1% of all business entities) yet employs around 40% of the total private sector workforce. Public sector employers (government departments, local councils etc.) and some non-governmental organisations are also in this category.

Office premises may be large tower blocks, or campus buildings spread over wide areas. Network operators themselves are often large enough to qualify in this category. In years past, landline telephone extensions would be physically wired to each desk and mobile phone use limited to a few senior executives. Nowadays, the majority of calls and substantial amount of email is handled on wireless devices – a trend that is likely to continue. New offices may not be equipped with fixed phones at all, relying entirely on mobile phones and smartphones for voice calls.

To meet these growing capacity and coverage requirements, larger number of small cells required, spread across multiple floors. Interference between floors and across the same floor needs to be handled. Ideally, the system would appear as a single cell both to the core network and to the smartphones connected to it.

This ideally requires an onsite controller, which co-ordinates the signalling and handover in-building, removing excess load from the core network. Systems such as that from Spidercloud, which has recently completed extensive and successful trials with Vodafone, meet that need.

DAS (Distributed Antenna Systems) have been popular in the past for such large buildings but are seen to be comparatively very expensive. Their advantage is that they can support multiple operators/technologies within the same system. One or more centrally connected basestations (from different operators) drive the DAS, which distributes RF around the building/campus area. This makes it more suitable for public spaces such as shopping malls etc, where there will be a wide mix of traffic through all network operators, rather than individual businesses such as large enterprises where the system is supplied and installed by a single operator.

Small cells connected using standard Ethernet CAT5 cabling are very much easier and less obtrusive to install than DAS systems which require larger and unwieldy waveguides.

A further option, promoted by Huawei, involves installing numbers of remote radio heads connected using fibre optic cable to the nearest macrocell, which hosts the baseband processing. However, the luxury of a fibre optic connection may not be easily provided in dense urban environments, even over relatively short distances. Installation of fibre optic cable rather than standard Ethernet may also require a higher skill level in the field staff.

General factors for all types of enterprise small cells

In all cases, it is helpful if there is minimal specialist skill required to install the system – it should not require RF specialists to make special plans or onsite measurements. With CAPEX and OPEX budgets both under pressure, these systems have to be both lower cost to install and to maintain than before. We are already seeing signs that enterprise small cells can allow the same budgets that used to be spent on expensive DAS installations stretching much further, and providing service to much larger numbers of enterprises.

As these systems continue to become smarter, simpler to install and even more self-optimising, they will raise fewer support calls, require fewer site visits and generate stronger customer loyalty.

The systems described above are all 3G today. While LTE small cells are in development, I'd expect these to be used initially for metrocell purposes and before we find them deployed inside enterprises. We may see multi-mode 3G/LTE enterprise small cells appear before LTE only ones.

Of course, Wi-Fi will continue to have an important part to play inside the enterprise for data and again we are likely to see this incorporated into the same physical units, allowing for simplified installation, maintenance and operation with the associated reduction in total cost of ownership.

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