Small cells

Startup Challenges AlcaLu's Single-Vendor LTE

Unlike Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), which wants to sell carriers on a single-vendor vision for Long Term Evolution (LTE), systems software startup AirHop Communications Inc. says that simply isn't a realistic approach. (See AlcaLu Pitches Single-Vendor LTE.)

The way the radio access network (RAN) is evolving, with some carriers rolling out femtocells and others beginning to consider going with small cells, there could one day be a small-cell world made up of femtocells, picocells, and microcells.

And it's not likely that all of the little base stations in an operator's network will come from the same vendor.

It won't be a smooth transition to a "crowd-sourced" small-cell network, argues AirHop founder and president Yan Hui, but it's already underway. (See Small Cells Key to LTE, Analyst Says.)

Femtocells and their small-cell brethren can help operators fill in the gaps of LTE network coverage. And with the addition of self-organizing network (SON) capabilities (which is AirHop's specialty), those small cells could not only provide coverage, but also troubleshoot problems like interference with other cells and signal overlap. (See 4G Startup Revs LTE Automation, AirHop Evolves SON for 4G, Who Does What: Femtocell Services, Challengers Shake Up LTE Chips , DesignArt Boosts 4G SoCs, Multicore Processors Target LTE , Ubiquisys Nabs $9M for Femto Push , and picoChip Expands in India.)

Hui formed AirHop in 2007 with the goal of transforming network topology from its typical architecture to one driven by small cells and lessening the interference that could result. (See LTE Startup AirHop Debuts, Adds Execs and 4G Startup Revs LTE Automation.)

"There's a requirement to have intelligence on the edge of the network and into the nodes of the small cell," he says. "That's why we're here."

Carriers can add more bits to their limited spectrum, but that's a slow process, he notes. The only real solution is to make the cell smaller and deploy more of them. "By making them smaller, you have to shrink the cell and split it into smaller cells and reuse the frequency."

Most wireless operators have accepted this, although few have actually deployed small cells -- at least not yet for LTE. But Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) is already making chips to accommodate the smaller size, and Hui says that operators like NTT DoCoMo Inc. (NYSE: DCM) have accepted that the topology must change. (See CTIA: Qualcomm Bosses Think Small for LTE .)

Once the small cells are deployed, however, it's not smooth sailing. Interference is the main problem.

"The industry has been ignoring this, [saying] 'Let's do big cell or small cells and it will work the same way.' So what we're trying to do is provide intelligence to manage these smaller cells to enable spectrum reuse among small cells and manage interference among those cells."

Right now, early trials of LTE start with traditional macrocells to get the coverage, but then wireless operators will follow up with LTE small cells, especially for high density downtown areas, says Hui. (See Operators Eye LTE Metro Femtos.)

"If you want to reuse frequency between smaller cells and today's existing macrocell, you have to have a way for them to communicate between each other relatively conveniently," he says. And this is where AirHop comes in. Carriers may not need AirHop's software in the existing elements of their 3G networks, but they need it in the group of picocells, typically coming from many vendors, that they will deploy for 4G in metropolitan areas.

"In the US, we have operators already deploying enterprise femtocells. They are experiencing significant problems with product return. When they sell more than one femtocell to IT guys, they have interference problems and their users complain, and they need real-time spectrum relocation technology to make it work. They are asking us whether we have the solution ready today."

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Reporter, Light Reading Mobile

joset01 12/5/2012 | 4:27:03 PM
re: Startup Challenges AlcaLu's Single-Vendor LTE

But who's buying? Haven't seen any of these vendors fetch up at the major carriers yet, have you?

SteveLi 12/5/2012 | 4:26:59 PM
re: Startup Challenges AlcaLu's Single-Vendor LTE


Its not just the up starts that have this strategy some of the major femto players are approaching LTE with the pragmatism of put the capacity where you need it. Then build from the inside out.

Ubi, PicoChip, Genband, NEC all have the architecture in place today to run 3G and LTE cells along side each other. Just because some of the other players didn't implement Cognitive radio in their 3G femto cells doesn't mean the whole industry has an issue with interference.

Over a year ago I sat on a panel discussion and I was the only one that said an LTE network could be built from the femto layer out. It was a femto conference. 

That approach is changing (has to change).....now we just have to go fix the backhaul! 

joset01 12/5/2012 | 4:26:59 PM
re: Startup Challenges AlcaLu's Single-Vendor LTE

Some of the major femto players are pursuing this for sure. My point is that I don't see them on any supplier lists for carrier deployments. If the small cell approach is SO IMPORTANT to carriers and LTE why don't they seem to be deploying networks in that fashion yet? Just seems like vendor chatter at the moment not anything actually real.

paolo.franzoi 12/5/2012 | 4:26:58 PM
re: Startup Challenges AlcaLu's Single-Vendor LTE

Read the last line of Steven's post....backhaul.

Okay at least femto's have a defined deployment placement and backhaul (even though I think they are being priced wrong).  Okay go find a bunch of new spots to locate a small cell site and get connectivity to it.  If you plan to subtend these small sites from a bigger site, you will need even more bandwidth at the bigger site since now the radio coverage should allow more air bandwidth to be available.



georgejzfbull 12/5/2012 | 4:26:44 PM
re: Startup Challenges AlcaLu's Single-Vendor LTE

That is true, SON is a right solution for gap reduction of macrocell operators. It also has absolute domain to enjoy for frequence reuse and bandwidth addition, that is customers wanted. We are looking forward to seeing the future changing.

Victor25 12/5/2012 | 4:26:33 PM
re: Startup Challenges AlcaLu's Single-Vendor LTE

It is true that commercial LTE deployments need huge capacity. It is also true that Small Cells are mandatory for LTE deployments. SON is a mandatory feature to make small cell deployment practical from operators perspective.

It is not true that operators are not interested in small cells. There have been several cases of operators having been forced to work from outside in (Macros followed by smallcells). The past learning has changed operator's perspective. The LTE network planning is definitely considering small cells in initial deployments.

With limited spectrum availability and high capacity requirement, small cells will make a huge difference with frequency re-use of 1. 

We have seen SON vendors proposing frequency re-use of 2, one for the small-cells and one for the overlay macro.Also, recent industry observation tells me that not one has integrated a SON onto a smallcell nor onto a Macro Base-Station. SON software being demonstrated in isolation is still a long way from making it work with an eNodeB.

At Anvaya Networks, we have a LTE picocell with frequency re-use 1 and integrated with SON.

joset01 12/5/2012 | 4:26:06 PM
re: Startup Challenges AlcaLu's Single-Vendor LTE

I definitely agree that small cells in the form of 3G femtocells are starting to happen. Verizon appears to be working towards a 3G femtocell and Sprint has just started shipping them, according to Engadget.

My point is that I don't see the mini LTE basestation for beefing up urban coverage out there yet.

gchoi 12/5/2012 | 4:26:06 PM
re: Startup Challenges AlcaLu's Single-Vendor LTE

It's true that small cell trials have just started, but the market is definitely emerging.  Dan himself makes this point in his June 2 article, “AT&T's 3G Femtocells Now in More US Cities." The article notes that AT&T, certainly one of the largest carriers, is pushing ahead of competitors and has been “quietly but swiftly” launching commercial 3G femtocell service in major cities throughout the U.S. since April.

Meanwhile, the "RAN Gap," the growing deficit between RAN capacity and user demand, continues to widen (my personal contribution to the data tsunami has trebled since upgrading to the iPhone 4).  Small cells are the only cost-effective and rapidly-deployable way to narrow the RAN Gap.

jakeridden 12/5/2012 | 4:21:25 PM
re: Startup Challenges AlcaLu's Single-Vendor LTE

Hi Steve, I wanted to hear your solution to fix backhaul.

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