Hello, Small Cells; Goodbye, Cell Towers
Small cells are not a new invention; in fact, they have been around since the beginning of the mobile era. But the incentive to roll out large-scale small cell networks has been lacking, largely because voice services and basic mobile broadband has been well served by the large cell grid. This is changing with LTE and the vast growth in mobile broadband.
This cellular grid is both a blessing and a curse, because it is impossible to uproot and move as the need for more cell capacity arises. A tighter grid is needed –- yes -– but it won’t come from the traditional fridge-sized base stations and unsightly towers. Instead, cell densification, which is desperately needed to feed the mass market’s insatiable appetite for mobile broadband, will come from small cells.
The ecosystem of LTE vendors and operators has not been late in identifying small cells as critical for LTE’s long-term success. The name of the game is capacity in the LTE networks -– and lots of it. Even with LTE’s inherent high capacity and high speeds, the LTE signal must be delivered to where the traffic need is the greatest, which is indoors and at street level.
As the new Heavy Reading 4G/LTE Insider, "The New 4G/LTE Radio: Small Cells & New Architectures," explains, the technologies that are making this transition happen are maturing at an increasing rate. Together with a vast selection of sophisticated, super-compact, SDR-based small LTE base stations –- pico, micro, metro, femto, etc. –- new ways of serving and connecting the radio units are emerging. Building radio network "clouds" while using fiber for backhaul -– i.e., cloud RAN –- is but one, and there are others in the pipeline. A lot of creativity is also being pumped into the huge challenge of providing new forms of backhaul to a vast grid of small LTE cells.
All of this, of course, is meaningless if the business case for small cells is lacking. But with fierce competition on the market for mobile network equipment, and with very large markets looking at alternatives to the classic cell phone tower, economies of scale will no doubt prevail. The small cell is becoming a real low-capex/opex option for deploying LTE.
The question as to when large-scale small cell networks will happen in earnest still looms, although some operators have already taken the first steps. But at the current rate of mobile broadband growth, vendors and operators in the mobile broadband space will be well advised to take a very close look at small cells. Indeed, to keep up with the explosive public demand for mobile broadband, small cells seem inevitable.
— Claus Hetting, Contributing Analyst, Heavy Reading 4G/LTE Insider
This report,"The New 4G/LTE Radio: Small Cells & New Architectures," is available as part of an annual subscription (6 issues per year) to Heavy Reading 4G/LTE Insider, priced at $1,595. Individual reports are available for $900. To subscribe, please visit: www.heavyreading.com/4glte.