For the past few years small cells have been touted as the answer to the data deluge pouring onto 3G and 4G cellular networks.
With explosive smartphone growth, consumer expectations have quickly advanced from basic voice to high-speed data and enhanced quality of service (QOS) standards. Not surprisingly, carriers are looking for options to meet this exponential surge in data demand, with macro cell tower deployment inadequate to keep pace with constantly increasing customer needs.
Small cells -- tiny standalone basestations that increase network coverage and capacity -- have been hailed as the answer. So far though, carrier forecasts have fallen well short of actual deployments, with only a few hundred manifesting in 2013. Slowly but surely, however, this is starting to change. (See How Heavy Reading Called Small Cells Right.)
Why has it taken so long?
We all know that with localized coverage, small cells can give subscribers in a particular small pocket of coverage the needed capacity in a spectrum-efficient manner. They can offload macro traffic in both indoor and outdoor environments, especially during peak hours. Building out a vast network of small cells seems like a no-brainer. (See Know Your Small Cell: Home, Enterprise, or Public Access?)
However, the complexity of figuring out all of the intricacies has stalled a significant number of projects. For each small cell, carriers must be able to provide power, appropriate backhaul connectivity to the core, and seamless integration with the existing macro network. They've also got to work their way through local zoning bylaws, which has proven a very time- and labor-intensive part of the process. (See Small Cells: The Battle for the Lamp Post.)
The result has been a challenging start for many carriers, despite numerous optimistic projections from wireless analysts and the providers themselves. (See Multimode Small Cells Get Stalled in Labs.)
Things are starting to change
As the industry has begun to mature, a combination of technologies is being considered as part of the small-cell solution, and a "toolbox" is essentially being developed to address a range of different commercial-grade deployment scenarios.
For example, for commercial deployments, carriers are focusing on leveraging the latest indoor and outdoor small-cell solutions. The indoor solutions will focus on improving poor in-building cellular performance, supporting between 8 and 32 users with a field-upgradable feature set.
The outdoor solutions will focus on improving capacity or coverage in specific urban and suburban hotspots. The latest power-limited products should require short permitting cycles to ensure quicker deployments.
Plus, carriers will be choosing between deploying 3G/4G or LTE-only access points (APs) that include voice services through Voice-over-LTE (VoLTE). Carriers will even have the ability to enable WiFi services in all those APs in order to provide easy and seamless access to all users -- that could be on a pole or a user's home router. That means that future small-cell infrastructure will offer the ability to function as a "neutral host," allowing multiple carriers to essentially operate from a universal product. As a result, in 2014 expect to see a dramatic pickup, with several thousand commercial deployments from some of the largest carriers.
Time to let SON technology shine
Self-optimizing networks (SONs) have started to emerge as another ray of light for small cells. Say you had 300,000 macro sites to manage over the last decade. Now imagine the addition of 30,000 to 50,000 small-cell sites each year. The task becomes unfathomable, and that is where SONs come in. (See Cisco's Quantum SON Shines on Small Cells.)
When we have a mix of small cell, distributed antennas (DAS), WiFi, and macro cells, it becomes a complex heterogeneous network (HetNet). With all of the different networks, products, and technologies that carriers use to provide the needed coverage and capacity, there is a vital need for automated self-configuration, self-optimizing, and self-healing platforms to take over day-to-day operational tasks.
SON technology has been implemented selectively in 2013 but is still in the nascent stages of being tested. It's not yet fully automated. Currently, the technology is being monitored while running basic tasks, but with the advent of small cells, SON technology can really take off.
This includes better enabling planning needs, with the ability to determine how the networks will interact without interference by determining azimuth, power levels, and handoffs. SON technology will also help manage customer needs by filling coverage holes when sites are down, plus figuring out a way to actually fix the problem in the background.
Localized focus means improved customer experience
Not so long ago, GPS technology on your smartphone really only benefited you. Now, by reverse engineering through specialized tools, carriers can track each phone's performance from a geo-location perspective. With this information, carriers will be able to understand and analyze how well wireless traffic is moving and measure the quality of calls in real time. These analytics will help to identify areas of interest and to mitigate capacity or coverage issues based on call performance.
And increasingly, that analysis will become more focused on smaller pockets of usage. We're entering an era where network performance will no longer be monitored on a metropolitan basis. Instead, it will look at, and empower, a niche area. For example, carriers will be able analyze the upper deck of the stadium during a live sports game and improve customer experience in real-time.
With more localized small-cell coverage, geo-analytics will become vital. Carriers will be able to design and optimize networks efficiently, as well as quickly pinpoint and fix problems, resulting in higher customer satisfaction and lower churn.
Clearly, many industry analysts were overzealous and promised things that couldn't possibly happen in the timetables forecast -- there were just too many moving parts and unknowns to be worked through first.
But now, thanks to all of these technological enhancements and our clearer understanding of the very complex factors that go into making small cells a reality, we're poised to hit those megabillion-dollar forecasts in 2014. That means that small cells will finally start to enable big changes for networks.
— Naveen Bhatia, Vice President of Network Engineering, Nexius Solutions.