Small cells

Holy HetNets! It’s Super Macros & Massive MIMO

UK operator EE wants to turn its existing macro cell sites into "super macros," according to Andy Sutton, the carrier's principal network architect, speaking at the recent Base Station conference in London.

And China Mobile Ltd. (NYSE: CHL), meanwhile, is rolling out what C-RAN project manager Clark Chen called "massive MIMO."

EE 's plan to super size its macro cell sites fits in to a broader Heterogeneous Network (HetNet) strategy for adding capacity and extending coverage. The operator rolled out the first LTE network in the UK last year, and has now covered 55 percent of the UK population and has 1 million 4G customers.

"Super macro is the first step toward building a HetNet,” said Sutton. “Evolving the macro is the most cost-optimized way to adding capacity into our networks."

But what makes a macro super?

According to Sutton, a super macro would typically have multiple radio access technologies (RAT), three-to-six base station sectors, and operate in multiple frequency bands using carrier aggregation techniques. It could be a standalone base station or a hub for subtended, smaller micro cells. He added that infrastructure sharing is vital to the strategy as well.

Once the operator has sufficiently beefed up its macro cell sites, then it can look to smaller cells to be deployed indoors and outdoors in hotspots or cell edge locations. Sutton described a small cell deployment as an "underlay" to the super macro.

The term super macro isn't exactly new, but the fact that operators are talking about it now indicates just how much more they are looking to do with their existing radio access network (RAN) infrastructure before introducing new small cells or while planning a small cell deployment.

"Within the super macro concept, there's quite a lot operators can do to improve performance," says Heavy Reading senior analyst Gabriel Brown.

Along with adding sectors, using more spectrum bands, or employing carrier aggregation, Brown also includes in the super macro concept using 4x4 and 8x8 MIMO, active antenna systems, vertical sectorization, or beamforming.

The advantage of improving macro sites is that many of the basic elements that go into the total cost of ownership of a cell site are already in place, such as power, real estate rental, and backhaul, according to Brown.

China Mobile, which is pursuing a Cloud RAN strategy, has been working with higher order MIMO antenna installations to improve cell site performance. "Massive MIMO is one of our solutions," said Chen.

The super macro concept is likely to become more popular as operators look for cost-efficient ways to add capacity and coverage and while outdoor small cell products continue to develop.

— Michelle Donegan, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

DanJones 10/7/2013 | 11:48:40 AM
Re: Micros v macro Except that these things won't be cheap to deploy either and small cells still have a test lead on super macros.
Dimothy 10/7/2013 | 9:17:12 AM
There is no macro vs small cell in HetNets "Super Macro" will not solve uplink capacity problem, I believe soon we will see evolvment of real HetNets with small cells providing more of uplink capacity in hot areas etc.
MordyK 10/7/2013 | 6:00:59 AM
Re: Micros v macro Dan, I have to concur with you.I always thought that 2015 would be the year that small cells will begin to have any real impact.
DOShea 10/6/2013 | 2:36:47 PM
Re: Micros v macro The rise of "super-macro" can only be bad news for any vendors that have bet their future on small cells. Not saying they won't factor into the network in a major way eventually, but this alternative strategy plus already slow market development for small cells should kill any talk of 2013 being the year of the small cell.
DanJones 10/4/2013 | 10:30:19 PM
Re: Micros v macro T_mobile
milan03 10/4/2013 | 9:30:07 PM
Re: Micros v macro Back in June NSN spilled the beans by saying that "in less than 12 months they'll have a commercial 4X2 MIMO network rolled out with a major U.S. operator".

There is only one Tier 1 operator in the US utilizing NSN equipment.
MichelleDonegan 10/4/2013 | 3:46:35 PM
Re: Micros v macro Hi, Sarah!

I don't think it's an either/or scenario when it comes to macro vs. small cell. It's more like now/then. Operators have more options available to them now for upgrading their macro sites. For many operators, there is still a lot of room to grow in those sites and several ways to add capacity. Also, as you say, the challenges with outdoor metro small cells are so great that it will be some time before they can be deployed in any big volume.

EE's Andy Sutton also said that there was still some work to do on the small cell ecosystem -- which suggests a lack of products generally (or rather, perhaps, products at the right price).

The message I got is that in this whole HetNet context, it's difficult for an operator to plan a small cell deployment when it hasn't exhausted all the possibilities for expansion in the macro layer. How many small cells will be needed and where  depends on how the macro cell is coping (or not) with varying traffic loads in the area it covers.

I'm curious to know how are Verizon's small cells going.

Sarah Thomas 10/4/2013 | 11:04:45 AM
Micros v macro Great post, Michelle (and hi!). Fits in well with the mobile backhaul panel in NYC this week. One of the panelists mentioned that operators are opting to put in more macro cells versus delve into small cells. Did you get the impression that it's either or? Seems like both will definitely win out, but the challenges assocaited with small cells are causing some operators to think harder about improving their macro networks instead.
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