Mobile World Congress 2014: What Operators Should Look For – Small Cells

Ed Gubbins
Ed Gubbins

Small cells at Mobile World CongressHow two years ago.  The last time we all met in Barcelona, even the juggling magicians of small-cell hype couldn’t compete with the fire-eating trapeze act of software-defined networking and network function virtualization.  This year is probably going to be more like 2013 than 2012.

Still, small cells will be there in volume, just as surely as there will be meager slices of Iberian ham hidden inside crusty loaves of bread.  So, what can small-cell enthusiasts expect to see at this year’s show?  Here are some things to look for:

  • Indoor Enterprise Small Cells 2.0: Indoor enterprise small cells have been in vogue ever since operators actually sat down and tried to plan outdoor small-cell networks.  However, they’re no longer limited to being just the indoor versions of outdoor metrocells or the enterprise versions of residential femtos.  The latest category – exemplified by Ericsson’s Radio Dot System, Huawei’s LampSite and SpiderCloud’s E-RAN – aims at a more scalable system to address medium-sized buildings unsuitable for distributed antenna systems.  At MWC, additional vendors may introduce similar offerings to address this timely opportunity.
  • DAS Evolution: In connection with the above trend, makers of distributed antenna systems see the winds of change coming.  They know part of their business (that serving the largest buildings) is safe for the long term, but the down-market portion could be threatened by some sort of small-cell or Cloud-RAN type offerings.  They’re looking for ways to evolve that part of their business to take advantage of this trend rather than fall prey to it.  Will we see some early moves along those lines at this year’s show?
  • The Next Thing in WiFi: WiFi in small cells is as common as sore feet are at MWC, but less common is the specific strain of WiFi known as 802.11ac.  Though 11ac offers more capacity, it’s no panacea, as it also consumes more spectral resources due to its use of channel-bonding.  Still, this step in WiFi’s evolution is nigh, tempting vendors to use it as a differentiator.  In the small-cell space, differentiators can be hard to come by; so, activity around 11ac may be driven just as much by vendors trying to stand out from their rivals as it is by the value that 11ac technology itself provides.
  • Wholesale Activity: Despite the wishful words of vendors hoping to lure a new customer set, we haven’t seen much real traction in the way of wholesale small-cell players or offerings.  However, reports of U.S. cable operators investigating small cells have increased significantly in recent months, and Alcatel-Lucent’s efforts to involve a diverse set of players (from tower and building owners to billboard owners) in the small-cell deployment process could stir up the pot enough to provoke participation in wholesale models.  Whether it happens soon enough to produce noticeable evidence at MWC is another question.

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