26 Jun 2012
Mobile Operators Expand Small Cells Deployments
Small cell deployments are growing in number and are seen as the way forwards by many operators to enable them to deliver the much higher data capacity required by LTE.
In a report issued on 26 June 2012 by Informa Telecoms & Media they highlight the growing operator interest in public access small cells as well as progress in the femtocell market. As an example of this, AT&T & Sprint to launch public access small cells later in 2012 while Telefónica and China Mobile move ahead with femtocells.
As a benchmark of the rate of growth, the Informa report states that small cells will outnumber all macrocells globally during Q4 2012 and that femtocells (i.e. residential small cells) alone will outnumber all macrocells shortly afterwards in Q1 2013.
Small cells, covering a much smaller area, enable the overall number of users to be serviced and with much greater data rates. As a result the overall data capacity of the network increases. Although the introduction of LTE will provide an increase in capacity, alone, it will nowhere near be able to meet the data requirements for the coming years as data continues to rise exponentially in what is now being termed by some as a “Data Tsunami.”
The gains are clear. A recent Small Cell Forum study showed that even a relatively conservative small cell deployment with 4 devices per macrocell would increase typical data rates by over 300% and offload 56% of data.
As examples of the growing number of deployments, in the public access market, the report noted that SK Telecom had successfully started rolling out the world’s first LTE small cell deployment while AT&T, Sprint and China Mobile have all committed to rolling out 3G small cell services - AT&T and Sprint plan to launch later in 2012. Verizon Wireless has also announced its intention to launch LTE public access small cells in the future while Sprint is planning to roll out its first LTE designs at the end of 2012. All these operators have chosen to proceed with public access services following their successful femtocell offerings.
While femtocells, which are small cells aimed at indoor environments such as homes and offices, small cell approaches are now being used to provide much more localised external coverage. Cells are being installed in walls, lamp posts, behind shop frontages and the like.
Although offering many advantages and being seen as the way forwards, these new small cells present a number of new challenges. Some are technical in terms of the backhaul methods needed. Techniques including wired systems, microwave in licensed spectrum and even microwave using unlicensed spectrum are all options.
However there are also other more practical challenges in terms of planning and gaining access to suitable sites. Operators often expect it to take 18 months from the initial enquiry to installation. Additionally costs must be kept low if small cells are to become viable – typically less than around $2k. This has led to operators seeking deals with stores to use space behind their shop front. Often visibly positioned cells require planning permission and this is costly and time consuming.
As a result of these issues, some operators are seeking joint ventures where cell sites or even cells are shared.
It is clear that small cell technology and deployment both for femtocells and public access cells are set to grow significantly in the coming years and they will become the major way to increases data capacity, throughput and improve the quality of the service experienced by users.
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