Small Cell Backhaul Part of a Big Wireless Expansion

Carl Weinschenk

The explosion of wireless communications is having a continuous and profound impact on the telecommunications sector. One of the most immediate effects is the need to supplement the macro base stations that easily sufficed until the deluge began.

The answer – small cells -- makes sense for a number of reasons. A generation of small cells, made up of more exotically named devices such as femtocells, pico cells and others, has emerged during the past few years.

Small Cells: Creating Efficiencies

Small cells create efficiencies in a number of ways. They enable spectrum to be reused within the footprint of the macro cell. They provide entry and exit points for data to be trafficked onto the Internet – which is free, as opposed to expensive licensed cellular spectrum. Finally, small cells offer the bonus of improving coverage within structures which, of course, is a traditional weak spot in cellular coverage.


It’s a win all around. The challenge, however, is that small cells are numerous when they are used and the data they traffic usually is time-sensitive. Thus, the connectivity between the small cells and the wired Internet – the backhaul -- is an important and very complex item. Though Systems and Signals Telecom didn’t break out small cell backhaul separately, it is part of an exploding wireless network sector. The consultancy said that it, along with macrocells, cellular random access network distributed access systems (DAS), remote radio head, mobile core and backhaul and front haul, will be a $92 billion market by the end of 2020.

Companies are taking advantage of the opportunity. For instance,  Cox Business last month launched a small cell service that is designed to enable mobile operators to use small cells to quickly extend and enlarge their networks. FierceInstaller positions the new entity as a turnkey that will help mobile operators with site acquisition on poles or rooftops, surveys, permitting and device management.

Small Cells: Numbers Create Complexity

Small cell backhaul can be defined, at least to some extent, by its complexity.

“Small cell backhaul requires mass deployment capabilities of high capacity street level sites backhaul, with fast planning methodology and quick installation,” wrote Dudy Cohen, the director of Strategic Product Marketing at Ceragon, in response to emailed questions from IT Business Edge. “Macro cell backhaul, on the other hand, typically utilizes line-of-sight (LOS) microwave.”

This means, Cohen writes, that the world has gotten bit more complex for backhaul.

“Small cells backhaul requires a suite of solutions to accommodate the varying scenarios for small cells. Such solutions include moderate to high capacities, LOS [line of sight], nLOS [near line of sight] and NLOS [non-line of sight] scenarios, licensed and licensed exempt frequency bands and point-to-point or point-to-multipoint configurations.”

Astrid Wastegard, a product marketing manager at InfoVista, agreed that one size does not fit all in the world of small cell backhaul.

“It depends on the type of small cells that are being deployed by the operator,” she wrote, in response to emailed questions. “For example, handling an indoor small cell versus an outdoor small cell requires different approaches. Using the same approach and solutions for small cell backhaul as used for macro cell backhaul has also been tried, but that is not the way to go.”

Planning is the key to a successful rollout. Cohen suggests that companies look – and look closely – before they leap. “As small cells deployments are usually multi-scenario, mass deployments, it is essential to select a solution that can cover the different scenarios…while keeping manageability and ease of deployment at levels suitable for massive deployments.”

Companies need to have solid small cell backhaul strategies due to the intense timing demands under which these networks labor. Wastegard highlights three points to keep in mind:

  • Assume that more than one technology will be required.
  • Think of the backhaul early in the process to make sure that it works well with the equipment that is being purchased.
  • Choose locations “based on coverage, macro off-loading, capacity and quality requirements with advanced automatic cell planning tools.”

The use of small cell technology means that a good portion of the overall infrastructure will be inside homes and buildings. This is a significant change, especially for enterprises. An edition of TIA Now that was taped in conjunction with the Telecommunications Industries Association Small Cell and DAS Workshop in November offered good news from this perspective.

The cost structure for the underlying wired network is changing in a way that will help small cells in general, and small cell backhaul in particular, succeed. Bill Cune, the vice president of Commercial Technology at Corning, said that in the past, separate networks would be built within buildings for various technologies. Converging DAS, remote radio head, backhaul, front haul, building display, Wi-Fi, local-area network (LAN) and perhaps others on a single fiber network reduce the cost for each. Corning, Cune says in the video, has proof points in which expense to the enterprise in a fully converged system is cut by 30 percent to 50 percent.

The modern world of mobility wouldn’t be possible without small cell technology. It is, however, part of a generally denser and more complex array of both services and enablers.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.



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