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Airvana Is Back With a 'Cloud RAN' 4G Biz Cell

Dan Jones

Airvana is back with a distributed small cell node system aimed at enterprises that require improved indoor LTE coverage in the workplace.

The company, best known thus far for its work on femtocells, is back with the OneCell system, which is intended as an alternative to distributed antenna systems for enterprises. The company says it will offer an LTE controller and radio nodes that can support multiple operators and cover a range of 50,000 to 1 million square feet, with the controller acting as the brain for the nodes and coordinating them to act as a single, large cell. (See C-RAN Blazes a Trail to True 4G.)

Airvana OneCell

Talking OneCell
Light Reading emailed back and forth last week with Airvana and CEO Richard Lowe to get the lowdown on OneCell. Here's Lowe's take on what the technology is and what it's for.

How would you define [OneCell]?
OneCell is a new category of small cell -- we call it a Cloud RAN small cell. It's based on cloud RAN concepts in that the baseband processing is pooled across all the Radio Points to form a single physical cell with many radios. This is in contrast to standalone or "classic" small cells in which each unit is its own full cell. This creation of a single physical cell is what eliminates inter-cell borders and their associated handovers and interference issues. But, even within the cloud RAN umbrella, many aspects of OneCell are unique and innovative, such as operation over standard Ethernet and increased capacity through Smart Reuse. So in the end, we get the performance benefits of a cloud RAN solution with the most attractive economics of any small cell system.

Do you see a growing market for units that improve LTE coverage indoors?
Absolutely! This is the whole basis for OneCell. It's a frequently cited figure that 80% of mobile usage is indoors, but the numbers we look at show only about 12% of operator budgets going to indoor coverage solutions (small cells and DAS). There are reasons for this, but in the long run the capacity investment needs to be aligned with where the users are. WiFi addresses the indoor need to some extent, but it isn't ideal for every situation. Mobile devices do not automatically connect to new WiFi networks, meaning that as users move around they must proactively log in to each new WiFi network. By contrast, LTE is part of the operator's network, so a user will automatically connect wherever they are. The purpose of OneCell is to make LTE delivery as simple and inexpensive as WiFi, so that users will have both wherever they are.

From a demand perspective we are seeing tremendous interest. OneCell is already in operator trials, and enterprise trials will start in Q3. A number of operators who collectively represent over a billion subscribers are talking to us about OneCell.

Whose responsibility is it to install these units? Carrier or end user?
Another unique characteristic of the OneCell architecture is that it supports a wide range of business models. End users could not only install the Radio Points and Ethernet infrastructure, but they could also purchase them just like some enterprises purchase DAS [distributed antenna] systems. This is because the Radio Points support all the major LTE frequencies and can be software-defined to support any frequency for any operator. Many enterprises are willing to fund these deployments, reducing the carrier's deployment expense to simply installing the Baseband Controller.

What has Airvana been up to recently? I haven't heard much from the company.
For our 3G business, we have been busy shipping 1.5M units, and several analysts have indicated we are the number one supplier worldwide for 3G small cells. We have also been in stealth mode working for the past three years on the OneCell architecture and innovations, and now that the product is in trials, have decided to announce it. You will be hearing a lot more from Airvana because this is just the beginning -- there is much more to come.

A historic note: Ericsson bought the CDMA EV-DO macrocell side of Airvana's business in 2013. Airvana has been focused on developing LTE small cells for several years. (See Ericsson Buys Airvana Biz, Kills Lawsuit and Airvana, Hitachi Demo LTE Femto.)

The rivals
Airvana is not the only company eyeing enterprise deployments as the best small cell opportunity at the moment. Airvana's distributed approach most closely resembles that of the startup SpiderCloud Wireless . That company has just started to ship its LTE enterprise small cell unit. (See SpiderCloud Shipping LTE Biz Small Cells .)

Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), and many others also want a piece of the enterprise small cell pie. The enterprise side has taken off faster than large-scale public access small cell deployments. (See NSN to Take Its Flexi Zone to Work, Ericsson Expects Smooth Sailing for Radio Dot , and Know Your Small Cell: Home, Enterprise, or Public Access?)

— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading

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User Rank: Light Sabre
6/10/2014 | 7:20:50 PM
I can understand why operators don't focus on the indoor spaces, even though that's where we all use handsets most of the time. It has to be much harder to get infrastructure in place inside. These are areas that are private property and require a lot of planning to put gear in place.

It just doesn't seem worth it for operators to spend the time and money, I would think. 
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