The Big Promise of Small Cells

Carl Weinschenk

Exponentially increasing demand on a wireless network can be met in two ways: Add spectrum or more cleverly use what already is at hand. Small cells are perhaps the leading way to the latter.

More drivers of small cells are that they are located near or inside user premises, they greatly improve coverage and address dead spots and other reception problems that have long been the bane of the industry.

Those attractive rationales notwithstanding, small cells have not had an easy path. It is complex technology and, since there clearly is a lot of money on the table, various forms of small cells vied for competitive advantage until recently. The industry has begun taking a more inclusive approach. The focus has been put on the overall category, not each of the various types of cells of which it is comprised.

Things are looking up for the sector. Earlier this month, ABI Research released research indicating that one form of small cells, enterprise and consumer femtocells, will enjoy healthy year-over-year growth this year and next. Vendors of the indoor technology, the firm said, will ship 3.8 million units this year and 5.7 million next. The firm presents its predictions for outdoor small cells a bit differently. This category will grow 125 percent next year to reach a value of $3.6 billion, the firm believes.


The increasing acceptance of small cells is evident in the announcement this week that AT&T has been named the official wireless provider of Walt Disney World Resort and the Disneyland Resort. Consider the mix of what the carrier is bringing to the venues, as reported by CNET:

Specifically, AT&T will add more than 25 distributed antenna systems in an effort to add capacity. It will also add more than 350 small cells, which extend the availability of the network. AT&T is adding 10 new cell sites across the Walt Disney World resort to boost coverage and capacity. And it will add nearly 50 repeaters to help improve coverage of the network.

The bottom line is that small cells increasingly are in the mix. A couple of sure signs of this are an LTE small cell “Plugfest” and news of a successful hacking.

“Plugfests” are informal events in which equipment from different vendors prove that they can interoperate. Last month, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) – held such an event in Slovenia. The goal is to enable vendors to seamlessly include small cells in their next-generation wireless rollouts.

The hacking was the work of security firm iSec Partners. Two engineers from the firm cracked a Verizon femtocell that is used to support residential cell phones through connection to a broadband network. The story has details on what the firm did. The bottom line is that the increasing popularity of small cells will come with the same risks as any other suddenly popular technology.

Small cell technology is far from sexy. It is, however, one of the most promising ways that the wireless industry can avoid the looming threat of bandwidth exhaustion.



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