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Grasping the demand for small cells

Posted: 09 Dec 2011     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:small cells  heterogeneous networks  self organising networks 

The small cells market has started, with millions of consumer femtocells shipping this year. The market is expected explode over the next five years, with heterogeneous networks (HetNet) and self organising networks (SON) products coming out to address new kinds of small-cell applications. For example, the emphasis of the market has shifted from coverage enhancement to capacity enhancement, and many of the new femtocells and picocells in development today are intended to augment the ability of urban networks to handle dense mobile data traffic.

There is strong demand for urban small cells. Mobile data traffic demand nearly doubles every year, and the 3G infrastructure currently in the field has begun to hit capacity limitations, especially in key urban areas. In the strategic plans of leading major network operators, handling dense data traffic loads has become more critical than voice coverage in every corner.

The difficulty arises when the mobile operators consider where to place their femtocells and picocells. To achieve the highest possible mobile data density, an underlay of small cells (mounted to a street light, utility pole or other "street furniture") is ideal. Some of those locations have power available, but do not have available backhaul.

In fact, the lack of adequate backhaul currently seems to be the one missing link which is holding the market back from sweeping adoption of small cell technology. The operators desperately need to improve data capacity, but do not have all of the tools necessary to deploy a solution.

Taking a look at the small-cell landscape, it's clear that there are several different options, ranging from consumer femtocells to highly coordinated picocells. The backhaul needs of each option are very different:

Consumer femtocells will almost always use a form of "best effort" backhaul, with DSL or cable modems providing broadband coverage in most homes. Because most operators will never expect consumer femtocells to reach the high levels of service quality achieved in a traditional telecom network, this arrangement seems to work out fine.

Enterprises have the option of using "best effort" solutions, or purchasing T1/E1/fibre connections to service their femtocells. Some enterprises may choose to use these higher-quality options, but the femtocells themselves will continue to have issues for a few years in terms of handoff statistics and other QoS metrics. Overall, the most logical option for many enterprises will be to remain with "best effort" backhaul solutions such as DSL to save money.

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