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Small cells

MWC 2014: Single-Mode 4G Small Cells Ahoy?

One of the trends to watch for at Mobile World Congress is the emergence of more single-mode and dual-mode small cells for public access and the enterprise.

Dual-mode enterprise small cells are useful for businesses that already have corporate WiFi but need to improve cellular coverage in their offices. We might even see more than just talk about deployments in 2014. (See SpiderCloud Eyes LTE Enterprise Small Cells in 2014, Joint Qualcomm & AlcaLu Small Cells Due Mid-Year, and Ericsson Expects Smooth Sailing for Radio Dot .)

Small cell chip vendors are telling me, however, that carriers might -- in the near-ish future -- buck the conventional wisdom that public access small cells will be all-singing, all-dancing multi-mode affairs that support 3G, 4G, and WiFi. Instead we could start to see more single-mode LTE units on the scene. (See AT&T: Multimode Small Cells by Early 2015.)

The reason for this is two-fold: Operators, particularly in the US, are going back to fill in coverage holes in their LTE deployments and need better 4G coverage and capacity for future service offerings such as voice-over-LTE and broadcast LTE.

In January, Kris Rinne, senior vice president of network technology at AT&T Labs, told me that the operator is testing LTE-only small cells for outdoor use.

Freescale Semiconductor Inc. , meanwhile, is targeting its next line of small cell chips at LTE devices. Another vendor, Cavium Inc. (Nasdaq: CAVM), is also expecting to see more operators move to single-mode LTE.

"The number of operators in that category will actually grow," says Raj Singh, GM of the wireless broadband group at Cavium. Partly this will depend on what spectrum carriers have access to.

"[Single-mode] is much easier to deploy," adds Singh.

Cavium is also looking at operators that move straight from 2G to 4G in parts of India, Africa, and other markets. Singh says that a future product will feature LTE and GSM to support voice and data.

Still, as ever, don't expect any of the transitions on the public access small cell market to happen quickly. Freescale isn't expecting its silicon to be in commercial products until 2015, while Cavium is shooting for the fall of 2014. (See How Heavy Reading Called Small Cells Right.)

"I think this is another year of trials and limited deployments," Cavium's Singh says, while stressing that the company has started to see revenue from small cells (though Cavium won't say how much).

The enterprise side of the house looks poised to move quicker than that, though. Business small cells are easier to deploy because they don't require local government approvals and can often be powered via a customer's existing Ethernet network.

If you're at all confused about the differences between home, enterprise, and public access small cells, check out this article: Know Your Small Cell: Home, Enterprise, or Public Access?

— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading

Sarah Thomas 2/20/2014 | 12:16:12 PM
Re: Verizon & AlcaLu Good point. ALU didn't offer up the scope or location of the deployment or how many need new backhaul, but perhaps those are things we can figure out next week at the show.
DanJones 2/20/2014 | 11:50:09 AM
Re: Verizon & AlcaLu Yeah, a tiny bit validated already, although we don't know what is live with AlcaLu's LTE small cells at VZN yet. Nonetheless, Verizon is one of the operators that really, really needs the best LTE coverage it can get if it plans to do things like VoLTE and Broadcast LTE though.
Sarah Thomas 2/20/2014 | 11:41:46 AM
Verizon & AlcaLu Definitely agree with trend, Dan. In fact, Verizon announced today it's deploying Alcatel-Lucent's LTE small cells. AlcaLu has multimode ones coming mid year that I imagine Verizon will use too, but it's not looking to wait for them.
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