Small Cells Look to a Bright Future

Carl Weinschenk
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10 Myths About Virtual Mobile Infrastructure

Proponents have long extolled the potential of small cells. These devices, which represent a new layer inserted between end users and legacy macro cell towers, are flexible and seem to respond to a number of challenges facing mobile operators.

One of the ways in which small cells will be used, according to Heavy Reading Senior Analyst Ravi Narayanan, is to facilitate the transition to Voice Over LTE (VoLTE).

The initial phase-in of LTE services focused on data services. Voice continued to be carried over in 3G and 2G networks. The plan was to transition later to consolidated voice and data over LTE.


That later is now. The move to VoLTE, Narayanan writes, likely will rely on small cell technology. The idea is that “densification” is a key to ensuring service doesn’t suffer as 2G and 3G networks are turned off and subscribers’ voice services moved to LTE. As the name implies, densification is addition of capacity in a given area. This, Narayanan maintains, is a perfect job for small cells.

Narayanan suggests that the indoor enterprise use is progressing more quickly than outdoor small cells, however. That business model, he wrote, is less mature:

Availability of power and backhaul at the desired locations are among the key factors that continue to break the business case for outdoor small cells. More fundamentally, many operators have not yet run out of road when it comes to further densification of their macro and micro cells.

Another driver of the small cell market will be increasing use of unlicensed spectrum. ABI Research released research earlier this month that the market indoor small cell market will generate revenue of $1.8 billion by 2021.

The ABI research tracks with Narayanan’s commentary. Increasingly, mobile carriers are looking to transition from crowded and expensive cellular spectrum to the free, unlicensed spectrum. Currently, the cable and wireless sectors are trying to work out mutually acceptable ways of doing so. If they are unsuccessful, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will step in and make it happen.

In either case, the unlicensed spectrum will accommodate Wi-Fi and mobile carrier traffic as well as miscellaneous other services, which have as much right to the spectrum as cable or phone companies. This will drive demand for small cell deployments. The firm forecasts that the segment of the small cell universe that focuses on Wi-Fi and LTE will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 47 percent by 2021 and at that point will constitute 51 percent of annual shipments.

Another important next step in the maturation of the network, of course, is 5G. This could also work out well for small cell. Tom Keathley, AT&T’s senior vice president of Wireless Network Architecture and Design, addressed the issues at Cowen and Company Communications’ Infrastructure Summit earlier this month in Boulder, Colorado. He told the conference that millimeter wave technologies will be necessary to provide the type of functionality necessary for 5G. This, he said, will involve a combination of small cell and macro networks, with the small cells likely coming first.

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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