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Being Small Is Going to be Big in 2012

Tue, 12/20/2011 - 12:11pm
Andy Tiller, ip.access
Mobile networks are congested. Nothing new in that statement. And it looks set to get worse as smartphones go mass-market and tablets take off. However, help is now at hand.

Why? Because a technology originally conceived to provide plug-and-play in-home mobile coverage has left the house and headed for the hot spot.

Femtocells, in effect small-footprint home cellular base stations, were originally conceived to alleviate not-spots – poor signal coverage areas in homes. The units configure themselves to make sure they don't interfere with the surrounding macro network and a simple web page lets the home owner decide which phones can use the femtocell. AT&T's 3G MicroCell is the world's largest rollout of such home-use small cell devices.

Andy Tiller, ip.accesspx;The original femtocell model was that these small cell units were stand-alone beacons of coverage, available only to a closed user group of authorized users in the home. But the combination of easy deployment, IP backhaul and network offload capabilities mean that scaled up versions of these small cells, with a little tweaking, can pop up to solve a big problem: network congestion.

The requirement for more radio capacity as the mobile data explosion continues is well understood, and new radio technologies such as HSPA+ and LTE are being deployed in part to deal with this demand. But the truth is that, taken alone, they can only do so much - perhaps increasing capacity threefold.

Freeing up new spectrum could up capacity again by around five times – but nothing drives capacity like the re-use of radio spectrum; and the smaller the cell, the greater the pattern of re-use.

Femtocells already have a big brother - the picocell - which operators around the world have successfully deployed to improve network coverage and capacity. The new generation of picocells share the same benefits of easy deployment, IP backhaul and macro network offload, but provide more control for the operator through active management, which is why they are gathering more and more operator attention. In fact, the business case is so clear compared to the alternative of expanding the macro network that operators want to take small cells outdoors into the metro environment.

So in 2012, we are going to see more operators deploying more small cells in more public places. Today's generation of public access small cells can mix the IP connectivity and self-configuring nature of the home unit with the ability to be managed by the network and provide open access for public use.

They are lower cost to buy, install, provision and maintain, and they can be quickly deployed to solve hot spot issues and improve customer service. Every LTE or 4G network operator in the world will eventually deploy public access small cells as a key component of its radio network, and as a principle weapon in the drive to provide the required capacity.

Now, I will admit that analysts, and yes, vendors have been known to predict before that next year will be "the year of the femtocell." Hands up, I've been a guilty party.

But now the market drivers have expanded. Now, the application has broadened. Now the return on investment story is wholly different. On top of that, the residential femtocell market is finally taking off, with significant volumes deployed in most continents.

Fixing the not-spots in the home for personal use created a business model that required the consumers to buy the unit themselves to solve their own problem. Many consumers and analysts questioned that model, but for the operators, the ROI numbers initially did not appear to support the wholesale distribution of the units at no charge. This has now changed. Operators have seen the benefits of increased customer loyalty and improved user experience, and many are providing femtocells free of charge to their subscribers.

And compared to traditional network infrastructure, the small cell model is very low cost; placing these small cell units in high-traffic hot spots to improve customer service and keep the data flowing creates an even more effective ROI argument.

Of course, there will be others who argue say that Wi-Fi-offload and other techniques will come to the fore, and they are right as well. I believe that there will be a smorgasbord of solutions for network congestion, and that there does not have to be a one-size-fits-all model.

But nothing beats contiguous, constantly connected coverage provided by licensed mobile spectrum, and the one size that will fit best of all, will be the public small cell which builds on domestic femtocell characteristics.

That's why, in 2012, being small is going to be big news and big business.

Andy Tiller is senior vice president, Product Strategy & Marketing, at ip.access.

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