While the public access small cell market is slowing getting off the ground, indoors -- both residential and enterprise -- remains fertile ground for small cells to fix voice and coverage issues, respectively. (See Lessons From Your Friendly Neighborhood Small Cells.)
It's not something you'll hear much about, but millions of residential femtocells are being automated worldwide as carriers lean on it for an indoor voice solution, Heavy Reading analyst Gabriel Brown said while moderating a panel of small cell heavyweights at the Big Telecom Event (BTE) last week in Chicago. The numbers aren't nearly as high as they are for WiFi -- most every home with broadband now has WiFi -- but residential femtocells have seen steady, significant growth over the past few years. (See How Heavy Reading Called Small Cells Right and Know Your Small Cell: Home, Enterprise, or Public Access?)
At the same time, the enterprise small cell market is taking off, but more so as a fix for poor indoor coverage. Ronny Haraldsvik, senior vice president and CMO of SpiderCloud Wireless , said that, after a slow start, the company has seen a "tremendous amount of demand" in the past 12-18 months. This has been helped by the entrance of big players like Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) in the market. (See SpiderCloud Shipping LTE Biz Small Cells and Ericsson Boasts Small Cell Breakthrough.)
The vendors are finally starting to overcome operator hesitancy around protecting the macro network. ("Don't [expletive] with the macro network" was SpiderCloud's founding philosophy, after all.) They are also becoming convinced of the business case for it -- not just in keeping enterprise customers happy, but also in treating small cells as a facilitation point for enterprise services, Haraldsvik said.
"Our biggest hurdle is convincing RF engineers that the system works," he said. "It doesn't matter if anyone has done it. They have to be convinced it doesn't interfere with the macro."
Arun Bhamidimarri, business owner for small cells and WiFi solutions for Ericsson North America, agreed that the indoor environment is the primary driver for small cells, and that the market is moving in that direction. The vendor plans to start testing its Radio Dot indoor system at the end of the second quarter. (See Ericsson Expects Smooth Sailing for Radio Dot .)
The consensus among the panelists, which included Taqua LLC CTO John Hoadley and Boingo Wireless Inc. CTO Derek Peterson, was that WiFi is ubiquitous and often the first place operators look to solve indoor challenges, but fixing poor voice coverage and quality still necessitates small cells indoors. Even as voice over WiFi, which Taqua powers for Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) and others, takes off, there is an acute need to fix the cellular voice and indoor coverage issues. (See Taqua Lets Mobile Users Talk Over WiFi and Taqua Extends VoWiFi to UMTS.)
At the same time, the need is shifting from 3G to 4G LTE -- a trend reflected in recent vendor announcements. Though 3G fallback will be around for quite some time, the demand is now for LTE small cells. (See Airvana Is Back With a 'Cloud RAN' 4G Biz Cell, NSN to Take Its Flexi Zone to Work, Vodafone Launches Small Cell Service in UK, Samsung Snags Verizon 4G Small Cell Indoor Deal, and Verizon Deploys AlcaLu's LTE Small Cells .)
"Quite a few vendors pushing on indoor LTE small cells because so many carriers want an LTE-only solution in the next few years," Brown said.
— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading