Hello, Small Cells; Goodbye, Cell Towers

Could Long Term Evolution (LTE) small cells really mean the end of the hulking cell phone tower? Are tens of thousands of super-compact LTE radio units on lampposts, billboards and office walls the future of mobile networks? If you ask the LTE technology vendors, the answer is a resounding yes. The big cell towers will still be around, of course, but with small cells we soon won’t need any more of them -- at least not in the cities. RIP, 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.

Attochron 10/26/2013 | 8:16:03 AM
Macro Towers Future Depends on Backhaul Answers Macro Cell Towers are on course for ~4M constructed by 2017. http://www.slideshare.net/CienaCorp/storming-the-cell-tower-cable-msos-move-mobile-backhaul-to-the-forefront. As small cells proliferate, they will indeed need backhauling -- which I believe too many assume will be available just because it's possible to deploy the small cell (where there's available electric power, people that want to connect, etc).

I think though that macro towers are in a state of crisis. And it will depend on new technology breakthroughs to determine what happens there.  For background, JDSU market research leaders claim that 500,000 will need a new backhaul solution that *doesn't exist* from a cost-per-bit perspective.

We see microwave 'maxed' out when there may be as many as 6 carriers on a tower each wanting 150Mbps -- and room to scale that by an order of magnitude in the very near future due to data demand on the network 'as-is' and then also when considering 'fan-out' from that tower with 4G small cells that want to leverage any backhaul that might exist at that tower.

And we hear from Verizon that fiber will reach no more than 30% of their footprint due to cost and trends like a dropping ARPU. Carriers, from their perspective, are finding fiber backhaul -- the only other alternative right now -- as cost-prohibitive. At $5K/month for one STM-1 (155Mbps) at one tower, while they're engaged in price wars with other carriers, is a tough proposition. 1Gbps -- their next likely choice of capacity target is easily $10K/mo and Sprint is decommissioning towers where AT&T and VZ want $15K/month for the 1Gbps. And 4G -- and its potential for massive consumer data consumption -- isn't a nearly a reality at the macro towers yet.

But a new backhaul technology that beats radio and fiber could change the fortunes of macro towers and revive those of companies like FiberTower where 3,000 towers sit idle for want of backhaul.

For disclosure our firm has *that* backhaul solution coming soon. As the first wireless laser backhaul solution to penetrate weather (solving the availability problem that has plagued so-called 'free-space-optics' for 15 years and validated by the US DOD in the field) it is profiled here in LaserFocusWorld Oct 2013 issue: http://www.laserfocusworld.com/articles/print/volume-49/issue-10/features/advances-in-communications-new-fso-provides-reliable-10-gbit-s-and-beyond-backhaul-connections.html.

Prototyping of the world's first and only ultrashort pulse lasercom is going on now with the U.S.'s oldest military institute: Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, VA and commercial partners including Picometrix and others. Cheers.                        
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