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Small Cell Service: If 9 Was 6

Dan Jones
LR Mobile News Analysis
Dan Jones, Mobile Editor

NEW YORK -- Ethernet Expo 2012 -- Expecting bulletproof fast wireless connectivity from tiny public access 3G and 4G small cells in the years to come? Think again, bub.

In fact, carriers are giving out mixed messages on how reliable they expect small cell service to be. In general, though, you shouldn't expect the level of service achieved by the macro cellular radio network, vendors on the Optimizing Ethernet Backhaul for the Small Cell Era roundtable suggested here Tuesday.

Both Heidi Adams, senior director of IP product and solutions marketing at Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), and James Heney, director of marketing at Canoga Perkins , said they were getting "mixed signals" from operators about the balance between how cheap they needed small cells to be and how reliable they wanted them to be.

To a carrier, a small cell can be less reliable than a full-size base station as long as it's cheap, suggested Hossam Salib, VP of product management and marketing at Positron Inc. . "A metrocell needs to be a tenth of the cost of the macrocell," he stated.

In fact, other concerns might trump connectivity, suggested Salib. "It can go down ... but security is still important," he added.

Stuart Benington, director of portfolio strategy at Tellabs Inc. (Nasdaq: TLAB; Frankfurt: BTLA), meanwhile, suggested that the deployment of 4G might help to allay this vision of cheap and cheerful best-effort connectivity.

"You don't want to make small cells so low cost that it just becomes a glorified Wi-Fi network," Benington said. Of course, with the increasing integration of Wi-Fi and small cells, consumers might not even know the difference much of the time. (See Small-Cell, Wi-Fi Groups Aim for Integration.)

Security, bandwidth and the reliability to maintain data sessions over 4G would all be concerns for carriers and cause them to expect more from small cells. "The operators that already have a larger subscriber base on LTE will go down this path," Bennington said. [Ed note: Cough, Verizon Wireless , cough.]

Certainly none of the vendors are thinking small when it comes to the future of small cells. All agreed, with a couple of caveats, that a quarter of a million or more public access small cells -- the tiny radios that are deployed by carriers to bolster their network capacity, not in subscriber homes or enterprise locations -- could be deployed by 2015.

"LTE deployment is driving this," Positron's Salib says. "One of the carriers we're working with tops that number alone."

No matter how many of these tiny radios get deployed, however, it seems that vendors still expect the wireless broadband buck to stop with the macro network rather than expecting the smaller cells to deliver 100 percent uptime or anything close to it.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Light Reading Mobile

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User Rank: Light Sabre
12/5/2012 | 5:17:55 PM
re: Small Cell Service: If 9 Was 6

It's maybe worth noting that while some of the vendors on Tuesday's Public Access Small Cell Panel did, as you say, coalesce around an assumption of as many as a quarter of a million public access small cells in live service in the U.S by the end of 2015, Heavy Reading's forecast is for 85,000 by that time.

I can't see the numbers scaling anything like as rapidly as the vendors would like. As we have been saying consistently going back twelve months there are still way too many uncertain and unfavorable factors in the business case for public access small cells to allow for scale of that kind in that timeframe.

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