Wireless Spectrum: One Big Challenge, More than One Solution

Carl Weinschenk

The goal of telecommunications planners, as for any technology segment, is to head off crises before they are felt by customers.

Perhaps the biggest looming threat is the shortage of wireless bandwidth. Luckily, a great number of initiatives are aimed at confronting the issue. If history is any guide, two things will happen: The problem indeed will be adequately addressed and the solution will be a hybrid of several approaches.

One approach is the use of small cells to supplement and better utilize the macro cells that to this point have been the core of the cellular network. One of the more interesting ideas in that area was floated by Qualcomm executive vice president and CTO Matt Grob at the Qualcomm On conference in Santa Clara this week. CIO reported that Grob believes that small cells in homes, which may integrated into other devices or, presumably, be in a standalone form factor, will share capacity with mobile users close by.

This makes sense, though it seems a bit like solving the parking problem by mandating that people share their driveways with strangers. Indeed, the concept is not new. For instance, FON, a Spanish company, has been allowing folks to voluntarily partition and share their Wi-Fi access points with strangers.

Another big player in the small cell game is Cisco. I posted on its latest and perhaps biggest move, the acquisition of Ubiquitous, at the beginning of last month. At RCRWireless, writer Kelly Hill posted a story and, more importantly, an online interview, with Jared Headley, the senior director of the vendor’s small cell solutions initiative. The interview is interesting. It provides content on the acquisitions Cisco has made and the structure of the Cisco Quantum Suite, an approach to optimizing and monetizing its small cell technology.

Another idea aimed at the spectrum crunch is Cloud RAN, or a cloud-based radio access network. Joe Madden, a principal analyst at Mobile Experts LLC, used a column at FierceBroadbandWireless to compare and contrast Cloud RAN and small cell technology. The difference, he said, is that the Cloud RAN approach is “pooling baseband resources,” while small cells distribute it. His piece is not deeply technical but does go into some detail in terms of how each works and the implications of using either.

It does, in the final analysis, come down to hybrid solutions:

In the end, most operators will be pushing ahead with the Small Cell architecture, and may consider Cloud RAN for special situations such as a stadium with very high density. If fiber bandwidth is free, then the cost of transport is no big deal, and Cloud RAN is attractive. For most operators around the world, fiber cost is a significant chunk of their operating budget, so we expect most of the market to move toward Small Cells.

Handling the spectrum crunch is an all-hands-on-deck initiative. Luckily, there are many smart approaches, developed by smart people working for smart companies. The explosion of use means that the answers won’t come easily. However, all that brainpower, and potential profit, makes a crisis less likely.

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