MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- Small cells are a convenient way to extend wireless network coverage indoors, but they're a heck of a lot more than that, according to Marcus Weldon, Alcatel-Lucent CTO and president of Bell Labs -- they're downright revolutionary.
Small cells have the potential to help increase the capacity of wireless networks by a factor of a thousand, Weldon said at a briefing for press at Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) offices here Monday.
Wireless networks are facing increased bandwidth demands, and are constrained from meeting those demands by the laws of nature, Weldon explained.
There's not a lot of additional spectrum available. By making use of unused spectrum below 6 GHz, or borrowing from increasingly obsolete technology (2G), you might get a 2x or 3x improvement in network capacity, Weldon noted.
Improved spectral efficiency can also free up additional network capacity, but we're running up against the scientific limits of what's possible, known as Shannon's limit -- the natural limit of bits per hertz. Still, by wringing further efficiencies out of the network, we might boost network capacity by a further 1.5x, Weldon said.
That leaves spatial efficiency -- and that's where small cells come in. Because small cells are short-range compared with their larger siblings, the macro cells, you can pack more of them together without them interfering with each other, Weldon claimed.
Combine additional spectrum, improved spectral efficiency, and small cells, and the wireless network capacity can increase a thousand-fold and meet the increased demands of wireless applications, Weldon said.
That could become particularly important once we reach a 5G world, when capacity demands on communications networks will be enormous and high-speed, short-range connectivity will be abundant: It's no coincidence that 5G experts cite small cells as key architectural components of future networks. (See Sprint's Saw: '5G' Opp Is Moving Signal Closer to Customers, EE Makes the Case for 5G and DoCoMo Unveils 5G Trial Plans.)
Alcatel-Lucent sees small cells as strategic technology. That's why it partnered with Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) to develop its first commercial multimode enterprise small cells following a July 2013 agreement between the two companies. AlcaLu sees the deal as not just a product partnership -- it's strategic to the direction of the company and the entire wireless industry, he noted. (See AlcaLu, Qualcomm Prep Multimode Small Cells.)
AlcaLu is not alone in highlighting the strategic importance of small cell technology: Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) announced its 4G LTE small cells with carrier aggregation this week, as did Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) Networks, while Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and SpiderCloud Wireless are also significant players in this sector.
Cellular vs WiFi
Cellular technology small cells represent an attractive alternative to WiFi, where interference management is difficult, Weldon said.
For Weldon, the key challenge with WiFi is that it uses unlicensed spectrum. "Even if I manage WiFi better, someone else can interfere with it," he noted. "In the end, I have to manage WiFi as well as I manage cellular, and make sure no one else brings competing WiFi into that space," he added. With smartphones able to act as WiFi access points, ruling out interference is impossible.
"I will never be able to manage WiFi as well as cellular, without replicating all the feature of cellular," Weldon said.
That said, integrated cellular and WiFi networks look like a favorable option, especially to maximize indoor coverage. And in-building coverage will be the primary role for small cells in the near term as network operators take a more cautious approach to public access small cell deployments.
And there are plenty of signs to suggest that enterprise cellular small cells will be broadly deployed, hooking up mobile service providers to enterprise LANs, a situation that opens exciting business opportunities, Weldon believes.
See previous Light Reading small cell coverage:
- Ericsson Preps Multimode Small Cell Launch
- AT&T: Multimode Small Cells by Early 2015
- Urban Jungle Is Still Too Wild for Small Cells
- Nokia Jumps Into 4G Small Cell Mosh Pit
- SpiderCloud Shipping LTE Biz Small Cells
- Indoor Market Driving LTE Small Cell Push
- Lessons From Your Friendly Neighborhood Small Cells