Think You Know What Small Cells Are? You’re Wrong

Ed Gubbins
Ed Gubbins
Summary Bullets:

  • Vendors are expanding the definition of “small cells.”
  • It’s not just a semantic question.

At this point in the small-cell hype cycle, you might think we’re far past the time when anyone could ask aloud what a small cell is without shame.  However, the question is actually getting harder to answer, not easier.

In early 2012, when the major RAN infrastructure vendors really committed to small cells in concert (most of them unveiling new solutions), there was no shame in asking: how are these small cells different from the low-capacity base stations vendors have been offering for years?  The short answer is that those old low-capacity base stations were historically aimed at expanding coverage in low-traffic areas, whereas the new kind were aimed mainly at adding capacity inside existing macrocells.

That definition would have been easy enough to grasp, but then Cisco had to get involved.  Since Cisco is bringing its considerable WiFi assets to bear in the small-cell game, it’s been referring to WiFi access points as “small cells,” capitalizing on the buzzwords and taking advantage of the increasingly blurry line between licensed and unlicensed spectrum in operator networks.  At first glance, this seemed like Cisco’s campaign alone – a way for the company to magnify its presence in the small-cell space to compensate for its lack of a broader RAN portfolio.  As traditional RAN vendors increasingly make WiFi a part of their small-cell stories, however, those rivals might very well follow Cisco’s lead on this point.  So, WiFi APs are small cells too?  Okay.  Got it.

Then Huawei and Ericsson ruined everything.  When operators’ interest in small cells shifted from outdoor to indoor deployments in 2013, Huawei unveiled an indoor enterprise solution, billed as a small-cell solution, which was actually a remote-radio solution: a baseband unit and radio hub cable-connected to small radio units.  A few months later, Ericsson debuted its Radio Dot System for indoor enterprise environments, going on CNN to show off how tiny the system’s ashtray-sized radio unit is, even though the system also includes separate hub and baseband units that are considerably larger.  Ericsson even claimed the Dot has “redefined” small cells, which is either understatement or heresy, since the system uses a macrocell baseband unit.  In fact, given that macro BBU, there’s no shame in asking: should this (or Huawei’s aforementioned LampSite) even be considered a “small cell”?

Sure, you could dismiss these questions as semantics.  Still, they highlight an important point.  The small-cell market is still being defined and redefined.  Large deployments, for the most part, haven’t yet begun.  Vendors are demonstrating ways to play in the space without being constrained by assumptions of what small cells are and are not.  Going forward, they’ll have to stay focused less on what small cells are and more on what they could be.

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