Small cells have long been on operators' roadmaps but more as a "next year" scenario, taking a backseat to macro network improvements. With recent traction in both the indoor and outdoor markets, however, 2015 is poised to be the year that small cells -- particularly of the single-mode LTE variety -- actually go mainstream.
"Small cells has always been a 'next year it'll be big' proposition, but it feels like we're really at that stage now," says Heavy Reading senior analyst Gabriel Brown, adding that the market is moving right now for the right technology in the right scenario, which currently means the enterprise primarily. (See Indoor Market Driving LTE Small Cell Push and Know Your Small Cell: Home, Enterprise, or Public Access?)
Indeed, the last month alone has seen several announcements, with Verizon Wireless tapping SpiderCloud Wireless for indoor dual-mode LTE small cells, and Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) beginning commercial deployments of Radio Dot with Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) and inking a deal for outdoor small cells on street furniture with JCDecaux. (See Verizon Taps SpiderCloud for Dual-Band 4G Small Cells and Eurobites: Ericsson's Radio Dot Goes Live.)
Focus on LTE small cells
At the same time, it would appear that demand for 3G/4G/WiFi devices has cooled somewhat, with most operators focusing on their LTE efforts instead. Devices that pack in all three network technologies were in high demand this time last year, but have struggled to make their way out of the testing phases due to the complexity of integrating three disparate networks into compact housing. (See Multimode Small Cells Get Stalled in Labs.)
Meanwhile, LTE has become a mainstay, and voice-over LTE has started to trickle out, prompting operators to turn their focus to plugging coverage holes in their 4G networks and supporting VoLTE indoors. New 4G technologies such as LTE-U in 5GHz are also emerging and supporting the drive for LTE small cells. (See The Many Faces of 5G and MWC 2014: Single-Mode 4G Small Cells Ahoy?)
This is a shift that's favoring Nokia Networks , as the vendor placed its bets exclusively on LTE from the start. It has LTE/WiFi small cells in trials now, with launches planned for the first quarter, but it isn't looking to add 3G to any of the mini-base stations it builds. Stephane Daeuble, marketing manager for small cells at Nokia, tells us that the vendor has seen an upswing in RFPs from operators for indoor small cell use cases, a shift from the past two years' focus on outdoors, and that these RFPs are almost entirely LTE focused. (See Nokia Jumps Into 4G Small Cell Mosh Pit.)
"We are a bit surprised by the amount of effort by the other vendors in terms of coming up with multimode solutions," he says. "There is some demand for that in terms of specific sides of the market -- clearly if you look at a home office or small enterprise, a multimode cell with 3G and 4G makes sense. But in large deployments, it's not the most efficient way to do it."
In fact, Daeuble suggests that enterprises would be better off subsidizing LTE smartphones for their employees rather than investing in 3G small cells. Coupled with VoLTE and voice-over WiFi, he says the need for 3G is becoming less and less clear. (See AT&T to Launch WiFi Calling in 2015 and T-Mobile Turns Up VoLTE-to-WiFi Handoff.)
Multimode – still coming soon?
That being said, the all-networks devices are still on other vendors' and carriers' roadmaps, even if they are now just one of many small cell technologies. Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) says it will ship multimode small cells in partnership with Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) in the first quarter of 2015, while Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), which originally promised the multimode devices in early 2014, only says it has nothing new to report at this time. (See AlcaLu, Qualcomm Prep Multimode Small Cells, Cisco: Multimode Small Cells Coming Early 2014 and Joint Qualcomm & AlcaLu Small Cells Due Mid-Year.)
AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), which was one of the biggest proponents of multi-standard metrocells (MSMs), has been working on the technology since April 2013. A spokesperson tells us that its work on MSMs continues in AT&T Labs and is in the final stages of testing. It plans to deploy the first version of the product in the first half of 2015 -- as one of many of its coverage tools. (See AT&T: Multimode Small Cells by Early 2015.)
"Our multi-standard metrocell product is a power tool to add to our next-generation network toolbox that we will use along with other technologies we are currently deploying, such as Wi-Fi hotspots and single-mode LTE small cells," the spokesperson says. (See AT&T Readies LTE-Only Small Cells, Eyes Multimode by 2015.)
— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading