A quick recap on new and upcoming small cell technologies

acronymsWith many new terms and technologies being introduced or becoming mainstream during the past year, I thought it might be helpful to recap on the naming, capability and timescale of significant new developments relating to our industry. Perhaps you are entirely familiar with all of these, but I often find newcomers can be somewhat perplexed or overwhelmed by yet another acronym.

Multi-Mode: We seem to still be in the stage of requiring both 3G and 4G capability in small cells, partly for support of many 3G only smartphones, partly because VoLTE (voice over 4G) isn’t yet widespread. This is holding back the take-up of simpler 4G only products, although some operators (e.g. Verizon in the US) are full steam ahead with dual carrier 4G indoors. Multi-Mode Small Cells are products which can simultaneously provide 3G and 4G service. A few are software reprogrammable to enable simple upgrade to dual 4G operation at a later date of the operator's choosing.

LWIP and LWA: Combining LTE and Wi-Fi to provide faster speeds has been touted during the past few years in various forms. LWIP (LTE WLAN Radio Level Integration with IPsec Tunnel) and LWA (LTE Wi-Fi Aggregation). The subtle differences are explained by the 3GPP RAN2 Chairman in this slidedeckI find it disappointing that there isn’t a single, common architecture choice – both LWIP and LWA compete for less and less overall attention. The risk is that neither will win, and both end up losing out to newer LTE derived solutions.

CBRS(Citizen's Broadband Radio System) uses standard TD-LTE in the 3.5GHz band and is currently only proposed within the US. Field trials are actively underway in several regions, with many Small Cell vendor products already having completed interworking tests. Regulatory approval deploy commercial service is expected very early in 2018 and will become available immediately inland and by mid 2018 from coast-to-coast once environmental sensors are fully deployed and operational. USB dongles will be available at launch with a growing range of compatible smartphones appearing during 2018. Read more in our earlier interview with Iyad Tarazi, Federated Wireless CEO.

LAA: (Licenced Assisted Access) is also branded as "Gigabit LTE". It requires a new physical layer chipset in both handset and small cell, and will appear next. This provides a rapid download boost (or traffic offload) with small cells able to capitalise on 5GHz spectrum. This will be a close competitor to the LWA and LWIP solutions mentioned above, but commercially and technically much more closely integrated with the licenced spectrum. Release 14 eLAA adds an uplink capability also at 5GHz. Qualcomm/Ericsson/Verizon/Federated Wireless announced they have a demo combining CBRS with LAA to provide a "private LTE solution capable of Gigabit LTE".

MulteFire combines LAA and eLAA, running both uplink and downlink entirely in unlicensed 5GHz bands. This allows building owners to operate entirely standalone private, or share/integrate with network operators. Deployment and operation should be at least as easy as for Wi-Fi, with some claims that LTE brings additional advantages. For a wider insight, read our popular MulteFire white paper.

Neutral Host: A third party using shared infrastructure to provide service for several network operators. This ranges from simple tower site sharing to include sharing backhaul, deployment/operations technicians and even base stations. The business model already exists for DAS (Distributed Antenna Systems) and is starting to become visible for small cells in both US and UK.

SON: Self-Organising Networks. Automation of the configuration of a radio network, actively monitoring performance and adjusting the parameters to improve performance. SON typically has two parts, a distributed local intelligence that reacts very quickly to local conditions (e.g. a door opening) and a centralised component that orchestrates the wider system through less frequency updates (15 to 30 minutes). Network operators have been very cautious about introducing such automation, worried that it could cause major outages. There is much wider acceptance today, with 3G and 4G neighbour list configuration being almost universally considered as an essential operational tool.

Virtualisation: We’ve seen how virtualisation has commoditised data centres, with servers being very tightly standardised. Server and storage capacity is simply a commodity to be traded, regardless of the applications used. That’s worked reasonably well in the core networks, where previously separate dedicated platforms were required for each type of function. However RAN virtualisation is much more complex, with an industry still introducing new technologies, spectrum and even commercial sharing models. It’s not yet clear to me if the commercial benefits of commoditising dumbed down RF access points will exceed the development and management costs of the new technology. Perhaps it will for some of the larger cell towers in countries where dark fibre connections are cheap, but I’d like to see more proof of the financial benefits for widespread indoor small cells.

5G: There’s a lot of marketing hype and research work around this term, but I’ve still yet to see a clear definition of its objectives. Adrian Scrase of ETSI provided the best status report I’d heard recently at 5G World, leading me to think that while standards bodies are working on it, we’re still many years off a major deployment. There are likely to be many more RF heads used, but much remains unclear. I’m still firmly in the camp that expects 4G to have “long legs” and satisfy substantial capacity growth over the next decade.

IoT: Internet of Things. A clever way of saying that many more devices will be connected to the Internet. There are so many ways of doing so and so many unimaginable applications we can’t even dream of. There are short range RF mechanisms such as ZigBee or Bluetooth. Wi-Fi is common today and will be introducing new lower power standards. Wide area technologies such as LORA and SIGFOX compete with traditional cellular networks. LTE has a special mode called NB-IoT (Narrow Band Internet of Things) which send a low bit rate signal and achieves some 20dB more margin than standard LTE, allowing it to penetrate deeper inside buildings and increasing outdoor range (a typical exterior building wall causes a 20dB signal drop through it). There is also a higher speed Cat M (or M1) where higher data rates are required at the expense of only 15dB margin improvement. We reviewed the implications of incoporating any of these technologies into small cells in a separate article.

Expect to see demos, trials and live service of many of the above technologies during 2017. Most will be ready for mainstream use, although smartphone handset availability will constrain growth for the next year or two. The choices that smartphone vendors themselves make (heavily driven by network operators) will determine which of these technologies become popular and which fall by the wayside.

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