AT&T is planning to introduce single-mode LTE small cells next on its network, but expects to have units that support 3G, 4G, and WiFi available late this year or early in 2015.
Gordon Mansfield, AVP of small cell solutions at AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), sat down with Light Reading at Mobile World Congress last week to lay out some of the operator's plans for small cells. Mansfield said AT&T has so far deployed 3G HSPA+ small cells on its network. (See AT&T: 3G Small Cells in 18 US States and AT&T Deploys Small Cells & More at Disney.)
Next up will be single-mode LTE small cells to help boost 4G coverage on the operator's network. "They're in the final stages from a lab perspective," Mansfield said. "We'll be in the field with those pretty rapidly."
He expects the LTE-only boxes to arrive on the AT&T network this quarter. Verizon Wireless is also prepping single-mode LTE boxes for various applications this year. (See Samsung Snags Verizon 4G Small Cell Indoor Deal and Verizon Deploys AlcaLu's LTE Small Cells .)
AT&T is still pushing, however, towards multimode public-access small cells for indoor and outdoor use in the medium term. "We firmly believe that multimode is the way to go," Mansfield says.
Mansfield is expecting multimode public-access boxes to arrive "very late this year" or "early 2015." (See AT&T: Hotspot 2.0 Integral to Multimode Small Cells and AT&T: Multimode Small Cells by Early 2015.)
Public-access multimode small cells have had a long gestation period in the lab. "We needed the chips to catch up," comments Mansfield. (See AT&T Has LTE Small Cells 'in the Lab'.)
Mansfield wanted features such as the ability to chop and change between supporting 3G channels or 3G and LTE channels on the small cells. He says that kind of functionality will bleed over into AT&T's enterprise small offerings too, as it offers flexibility for business customers and fewer truck rolls for the operator.
"The last thing you want to do in an in-building deployment is go and knock on the door and say, 'Can I have my box back?'" Mansfield tell us.
He didn't want to reveal too much about AT&T's enterprise small cell plans, but stressed that they are absolutely part of the operator's plans.
Mansfield, however, did say that AT&T is looking to a multi-vendor future for small cells too. AT&T's small cell suppliers will not be "limited to our macro vendors," he promised.
Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) and Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) are AT&T's macro LTE network vendors. Larger vendors and chipset suppliers have suggested it's better to use small cells that run the same code as the macro networks to smooth over integration issues.
"What would you expect a macro vendor to say?" Mansfield said. "Do they tell me that every day? Of course they do. Do I listen to them every time? Of course I don't."
Running the same code across the macro and small cell network is important when you're looking at dense urban outdoor deployments, where interference between the radio elements is most likely, Mansfield said. When small cells are installed inside, with walls acting as signal dampers, or in a more rural environment, "it's not so important," Mansfield maintains.
— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading