The race to build 4G LTE small cells with carrier aggregation is on. Ericsson entered its name in the race Tuesday, following announcements from both Alcatel-Lucent and Nokia Networks on Monday.
What will matter most, however, is not when the products are announced, but when they are commercially available, and that's looking like a 2015 story for all three vendors (each of which is claiming a "market first").
The new product from Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) is the RBS 6402, its first indoor picocell that boasts carrier aggregation, support for 10 bands, and concurrent LTE, WCDMA and WiFi. The vendor says downlink speeds of up to 300 Mbit/s are possible on LTE connections.
The small plug-and-play device gets up and running in 10 minutes using self-organizing network features and a building's existing Ethernet network for backhaul. Petter Blomberg, strategic product manager for Ericsson's small cells business unit, says it's at a price point that's more appealing to small and mid-sized businesses than Ericsson's Radio Dot System. (See Ericsson Dials Up Operator Support for Radio Dot.)
"This is the most flexible picocell in the market, with support for 10 bands in the same box," Blomberg adds. "That enables you to remotely activate the different frequencies and bands and use 3G or LTE. It removes the need for site visits if you want to change how you use your spectrum in the future or, if you acquire new spectrum, you can change from 3G to LTE."
Heavy Reading analyst Gabriel Brown says the market has been anticipating this type of product from Ericsson for some time. "It looks like a well-developed, feature-rich solution," the analyst tells Light Reading. "Ericsson has clearly paid close attention to the practical challenges of real-world small cell deployments, as well as to the radio engineering required in the next-gen access network."
Swisscom AG (NYSE: SCM) lent its name to the press release in support of Ericsson's new picocell, but trials of the device are not planned until later this year. Ericsson says it will ship in the first quarter of 2015. Blomberg also notes that Radio Dot -- designed for under-served medium to large buildings -- is in trials now and on track to launch this year. (See Ericsson Expects Smooth Sailing for Radio Dot .)
Heavy Reading's Brown also expects to see more small cell devices from Ericsson in the coming months, including a slightly larger outdoor device for "dense urban" use cases.
Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) yesterday introduced its first multimode small cell with carrier aggregation, that Mike Schabel, the vendor's vice president of small cells, says is in trials and will launch commercially in January. Nokia Networks also announced a new small cell using carrier aggregation (although only supporting 4G and WiFi, but not 3G), which it says will come to market in 2015. (See AlcaLu, Qualcomm Prep Multimode Small Cells and Nokia Jumps Into 4G Small Cell Mosh Pit.)
Not to be left out, SpiderCloud Wireless points out to Light Reading that it shipped its first commercial dual-band 3G/4G radio node on June 1 this year -- a full seven months ahead of the competitions' planned launch dates. (See SpiderCloud Shipping LTE Biz Small Cells .)
It's too early to declare one vendor a winner -- SpiderCloud has a head start on availability, but hasn't yet named its customers -- but it's clear that there is a strong demand in the market for LTE small cells. Carrier aggregation is also table stakes, according to Brown, and multimode is becoming that way as well. (See How Heavy Reading Called Small Cells Right.)
Single-mode LTE launches came earlier and were more plentiful, but designing a multimode device is an altogether tougher task. Alcatel-Lucent's Schabel says it's the hardest device the vendor has ever had to build, even with help from partner Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM). But this week's rash of announcements around CTIA 's Super Mobility Week show that the tides are now changing -- operators are ready to get serious about small cells, and their vendor partners are nearly ready to deliver. (See Multimode Small Cells Get Stalled in Labs, AT&T Readies LTE-Only Small Cells, Eyes Multimode by 2015 and MWC 2014: Single-Mode 4G Small Cells Ahoy?)
"If you had to choose between single-mode LTE or 3G, you’d pick LTE," Brown says. "But progress in chipsets and RF front ends now makes multimode possible and therefore desirable."
— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading