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Small Cell Forum Lays Down the Law

Sarah Thomas
9/11/2014
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The Small Cell Forum has appointed a new chairman at a time when small cells -- multimode, LTE, enterprise, public and the like -- are becoming linchpins in operators' network strategies.

Dr. Alan Law, Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) distinguished engineer and technology manager, will be taking over the chairman slot at the Small Cell Forum Ltd. from AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T)'s Gordan Mansfield on October 1. He had previously served on the Forum as the vice chair of Europe, but his new role will have him overseeing the Forum's release program, shaping standards and advocating for small cells in the market. (See Small Cell Forum Tackles Urban, Virtualization.)

It's a big job, and it comes at a time when multimode small cell deployments are starting to make their way out of labs, virtualization is creeping to the edge of the network and operators are requesting solutions to their coverage issues indoors and increasingly outdoors. (See AlcaLu, Qualcomm Prep Multimode Small Cells, Nokia Jumps Into 4G Small Cell Mosh Pit, AlcaLu, Qualcomm Prep Multimode Small Cells and Urban Jungle Is Still Too Wild for Small Cells.)

Light Reading caught up with Law to talk about the market with his Forum hat on (not in his official Vodafone capacity, although the operator became the market leader in 3G small cells under Law's direction). What follows is a lightly edited transcript of his views on the important topics related to small cells today. (See Top 6 Small Cells Movers & Shakers.)

Dr. Alan Law
Small cells, smaller pic
Small cells, smaller pic

On the Forum's top priority, Release 5: Where we are right now is working hard on the content for release five of the release program. It is focused very much on rural and remote and, even though it says that, it's broader. Remote encompasses typical applications like villages, mines, oil rigs. Rural looks at moving and remote work, buses, ships, trains. We're also covering effectively temporary sites, aspects such as disaster recovery, humanitarian, field and military, and standalone networks, off-net, dedicated networks. The immediate priorities are working on that.

On rural challenges: The key challenge is around power, typically. A lot of rural locations are difficult to get access to power. The way you control and manage power is important. Access to high-speed transport is typically difficult and/or expensive in rural areas. It's what can you do with the system and hierarchy to improve that and deliver the best possible experience in those areas? Those are big challenges.

Some of the other areas we're looking at include moving cells. Clearly, networks were designed from the beginning on the concept that cells stay still. When you move them, you end up with a fluid network. How you manage that and transition one cell to another becomes key. It's the same challenges as temporary networks. When you do that, you change that network. That's where features such as SON [self-organizing network] become key.

On backhaul considerations for rural deployments: This is a whole lot of flexibility in terms of backhaul. There are a lot of different backhaul choices. You can reuse other wide-area networks to provide it over cellular. It could be 3G rural cells connected by LTE. There are effectively new generations of microwave solutions -- you have some lower-frequency, non-line-of-site and higher-frequency line-of-site. There's work in the 60GHz band with high transport rates. With the continued introduction of broadband satellite, you're also seeing the flexibility to draw on lower-cost satellite backhaul that's becoming available across the globe. You can't say there is one particular solution. It's how you build a system that can leverage the backhaul solutions that are available to it and a design that can work well over any of those scenarios.

On achieving ubiquitous coverage: As an industry, operators are working to provide coverage in all areas where people desire it, and also for machines. It's wherever there's a demand, operators are keen to provide solutions there. We have to make sure the systems they are propping in are sustainable. What you're starting to see is coverage really stretch out. Even LTE, a lot of the first deployments are in lower frequency bands -- that gives you extra coverage to start with, over and above what you can initially achieve with higher 3G frequencies.

On the progress of SON: I'd say we're starting to see actual deployments from operators using SON. I'm aware of end use in markets that provide enhanced performance and reliability of the network. It's very much in the deployment phase -- not ubiquitous yet, but a proven technology and in deployment by multiple operators across the globe.

On playing nice with emerging technologies: If you take LTE-U or LTA, licensed assisted access, those technologies still need cells in order to work. I see them as very much a natural expansion of capabilities of a small cell as we move forward.

WiFi calling needs to sit within a network. We'll be looking at how you deliver the best possible experience, independent of whichever radio technology you use, whether it's WiFi calling, VoLTE or traditional circuit switched. We're looking to make sure the ultimate customer experience is good and managed. The work already completed within the standards that support that and underpins capabilities between technologies and certain areas where additional work is required. I see all these technologies coming together, and small cells are a part of how you gain additional flexibility in your network, how you drive additional capacity to your network where you need it and how you really bolster the capacity -- spectrum is limited, access to macro sites is limited. You are left with densification and having highly flexible and compact solutions to give you that flexibility and ultimately give your customer the best possible experience.

On the boom in multimode small cells: Probably what's delayed it a little is, it's been quite challenging to achieve that historically with the chips available, but with new technology coming at a chip level, the possibility of having multimode cells is very much becoming a reality. I'd say what's changed is, if you look at the market now from leading chipset vendors, a significant portfolio of their chips now support multimode. Historically it wasn’t, which caused the bill of materials to increase and made it more challenging. They've been able to address that, and it's easy to do that now.

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