Startup Challenges AlcaLu's 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