Small Cells Are the Great Enabler

Carl Weinschenk

The unprecedented growth of demand for wireless data is radically reshaping the telecommunications landscape. The extraordinary thing is that despite this explosion, the likelihood is that even more dramatic growth lies ahead.

Currently, advanced forms of LTE are being deployed. These will be followed by 5G, which is moving from carrier and vendor labs to field tests. Indeed, 5G is running ahead of schedule. Demand has sparked the development ecosystem and commercial deployments will start before the initial 2020 target.

A more basic first step underlies all this, however. These developments depend upon the creation of a far deeper physical infrastructure than has sufficed in the past. Macro base stations must be supplemented by a far more sophisticated and deeper infrastructure. Small cells are a key to fulfilling the new requirements.

Many types of small cells will be used to “densify” networks. That’s an awkward word, but a good description of the goal, which is to use small cells and other equipment to add capacity to the network that is already in place.


The signs seem to be good for the sector. Some, however, say that it has not yet taken off. To date, according to Paul Hanna, the vice president of Global Marketing for Casa Systems, shipments have been a bit disappointing. He says that this is on the point of change and that “good strides” were made during the first quarter.

Gregory Donnard, a product manager for network performance orchestration firm InfoVista, agrees. “Small cell deployments – regardless of whether they use ‘regular’ deployment models or small cells as a service (SCaaS) – have been slow to pick up in some areas and countries because the traffic demand is not there yet,” he wrote. “I do believe that we’ll see an increase in the deployment of small cells, using both models, with specific scenarios and use cases dictating which type of model is used.”

Hanna is optimistic for three reasons. He told IT Business Edge that LTE macro networks have been finished by some major carriers. Small cell-based densification is next on the to-do list. Secondly, siting challenges, the often troublesome process of securing rights to place the small cells, are being addressed. Finally, the financial payback for landlords and building owners hosting small cells is becoming more creative and attractive.

Two other executives told IT Business Edge that small cells are moving well. Neither offered the caveat that the market was slow to develop. Josh Adelson, the director of Portfolio Marketing for CommScope, wrote that small cells “have made enormous strides in recent years.” David Orloff, the chair of the Small Cell Forum and director of AT&T’s Radio Access Network (RAN) Product Introduction Group, noted that 18 million small cells have been deployed globally. He added that both residential and enterprise deployments have momentum and are being joined by momentum in urban deployments.

It is likely true that industry is at a pause between the deployment of small cells to buttress existing networks and the start of an extended 5G deployment push. 5G will feature higher frequency approaches than previously used. It makes sense for designers and vendors to understand the propagation characteristics of the new technology before more widely deploying small cells.

Key characteristics of such frequencies are that signals are more fragile and don’t travel as far. Thus, the need for additional cell sites is increased. The question is by how much. “If 5G is really going to deliver speeds that are 10 or more times faster than 4G, simple physics dictates that the best way to do this is to have more base stations within a denser area: MNOs,” Adelson told IT Business Edge.

At this point, a good deal of the focus is on using 5G for fixed wireless applications. “I do believe that we’ll see an increase in the deployment of [both traditional small cells and small cell as a service] models, with specific scenarios and use cases dictating which type of model is used,” Donnard said. The idea is that the fixed wireless use case is far less expensive than burying or hanging new fiber and, in the bargain, it helps the technical and financial evolution of 5G.

The networking evolution is running in parallel with evolution of the non-technical elements of the small cell sector. A wide variety of small cells play different roles. A few years ago, they were marketed by names tied to their functionality. Discussions of picocells, femtocells and microcells probably satisfied engineers. But, to non-technical decision makers, sales pitches likely sounded more like biology lectures than telecommunications strategies.

The industry has coalesced around the far more general and flexible “small cell” label. “Like any new concept, it takes a little experience to work out not only the ‘what counts factors,’ but also the vocabulary for how we talk about the new concept,” Hanna wrote. “Initially, there was a lot of attention given to the exact nature of the small cell…The industry spent a lot of cycles defining ‘small cells.’”

Those days are over, he wrote. “At one point, I had a grid of all the different definitions used by different analysts – every pundit came up with their own nomenclature. I think we have moved past that when we talk about the jobs needing to be done by the small cell.”

The promise of 5G is real. For the first time, wireless technology will reach real parity with wired approaches. This won’t happen, however, unless a significantly more robust infrastructure is in place. Small cells will play a huge role in creating that infrastructure, and it seems that the job of deploying them is well under way.

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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