Small Cell Technology Transforms the Cellular Industry

Carl Weinschenk

The scramble to support cellular and wireless services now in the field and prepare for demand that is expected to soar over time is driving innovation in the formerly staid cell base station sector.

Once upon a time – but not so long ago -- the cellular world was simple: Big macro towers delivered cellular signals to large areas. All was serene, until the invasion of smartphones, tablets and the explosion of data they brought.

The obvious response to the maxing out of macro cells was to introduce small cell technology that could be cleverly employed to share the load. This first occurred in the residential sector. The technology -- femtocells – now is an accepted part of carriers’ tool chest.

CarlQuote20150603The idea is that these small base stations, which generally are attached to the network via a wired connection, buttress coverage in a home or small business. This is serendipitous: Besides the increase in demand, cellular coverage has always lagged indoors. Thus, “femtos” brought the industry a double benefit.

The femto is but one variation on the theme of complementing the macro cell by focusing on small bits and pieces of the service area. For carriers, the femto positioned in this way, though helpful, is not a revenue generator. It is simply a more efficient way of delivering the services that subscribers have paid for all along.

These initial femto services gradually have evolved into a broader category that is more generically called the small cell sector. In addition to femtos, the small cell category includes microcells, distributed antenna systems (DAS) and picocells. Wi-Fi plays a key role, as well.

It took a while for the rapidly growing menu of small cells to organize themselves. At first, it was a competitive environment. That, according to Ahmed Ali, a research analyst for ABI Research, is in the past as vendors recognize that specific use cases will dictate which approach is used. “There was, maybe a year ago, a competition between solutions,” Ali said. “I think there is cooperation now. They realize [the approach use] depends upon the business side.”

In addition to broadening, the small cell sector is going through a transition in how it fits in. The first generation of small cell technology aimed at coexisting alongside macro cell technology without interference. The goal was for the two approaches to do their job -- but stay out of each other’s way.

The new era, which is very much in its infancy, is one in which the small cell and macro cell categories more proactively work together. The intelligence available to carriers and service providers is far greater than in the past. Self-organizing networks (SONs) make it possible to not only ensure that there is no interference, but to do things as sophisticated as transmitting different parts of a single stream on more than one path.

Birth of the Hetnet

The end goal is the creation of heterogeneous networks (hetnets). These networks will be agile. Operators will have the ability to factor in speed, coverage profile, cost, whether the user is inside or outside, security requirements and other factors to determine which of the technologies should be used at a given point in time.

It is not an easy implementation. Maravedis Director Caroline Gabriel said that the process of fully integrating small cells has been a bit slower than anticipated, but that it is moving ahead. “One of the things that has delayed it is the complexities of small cells and macros working together.”

Experts say that Asia is ahead on the truly advanced coordination between small cell and macro cell technology. They add that the United States is close behind and that testing and limited deployments will occur this year. Commercialization of deeply integrated approaches may begin as early as 2016.


It is a process that the industry takes seriously. “In the next six months, there will be further and further hetnet integration,” said Andy Germano, the vice president of The Small Cell Forum.

Real-world scenarios are being used as the organizing principles around which the technology is being developed. Germano said that four basic categories are used: residential, enterprise, rural and urban. Within each, various vertical industries and use cases can be developed.

A Complex, Integrated World

Cellular technology promises to get more complex over the next few years, and each of these changes and evolutions will be reflected in the base station sector. Some issues figure to be hot during the remainder of 2015 and beyond.

  • The 5GHz sector will grow more crowded. The continuing deployment of 802.11ac Wave 1, the emergence of the Wave 2, and the use of unlicensed spectrum by LTE all will contribute to the traffic jam. This will affect the deployment of hetnets and their use.
  • The emergence of network functions virtualization (NFV). This technology will affect telecommunications and IT across the board. In the case of small cells, NFV could be used to fluidly assign capacity as needed across a carrier’s small cell footprint. The ability to deploy more small cell capacity to select access points – say, those serving an area where there is an emergency or near a crowded stadium – is an enticing possibility.

The great changes in the worlds of mobility and telecommunications are transforming the long established world of cellular base stations. The evolution from huge macrocells to fully integrated hetnets in which there is fluid traffic exchange between cells of all sorts is a long one. The year ahead figures to be an important one as technology moves to field for trials and tests, experts say. Parallel advances, such as use of unlicensed spectrum by LTE and NFV, will make things even more complex – and extend the potential benefits to carriers, service providers and their subscribers.

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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