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Guest view: Will small cells save mobile networks from the data crunch?

Jérôme Meyer | April 7, 2014
As data consumption soars and technical barriers fall, mobile operators are turning to small cells to strategically boost the capacity and coverage of saturated macro networks.

This means operators can expect to see 30 times as much data on their networks as they carry today.

Accustomed to fast reliable fixed broadband connections, mobile subscribers expect the same high quality experience and performance from mobile networks.

Ultra-slim devices, ultra-fast networks and ultra-connectivity are in. Dropped calls, time outs, and slow downloads are out.

Faced with limited spectrum assets, saturated macro networks and subscribers' high quality of experience (QoE) expectations, operators must add cost-effective capacity in the right place at the right time or risk being sidelined.

Traditional, homogeneous "macro cell only" networks will not be able to satisfy demand.

There are three main ways to add capacity: secure new spectrum (which has become very expensive); squeeze more capacity out of existing spectrum (which is what LTE does, compared to 2G or 3G technologies); and add more sites.

To meet projected demand and subscribers' QoE expectations, operators would need to deploy and maintain 10 times the number of expensive macro cells in existence today. However, most urban areas have already reached their saturation point with towers, pushing spectrum to exhaustion. Even if there was room, municipal planning restrictions and community opposition can limit potential sites.

Weak signal strength at the edge of the coverage area would also limit data service quality.

This is where small cells become a critical part of the equation. Used strategically to complement the macro network, small cells hold the promise of high capacity at a fraction of the cost.

Shoebox-sized, a small cell requires just one person to install in less than two hours, indoors or outdoors. Designed to blend unobtrusively into the urban environment to minimise visual pollution, they can be discreetly mounted on lamp posts, walls, poles or the side of buildings.

Since small cells have much lower transmit power than macros, they can be deployed closer to where the traffic is. Making it easier for operators to quickly boost capacity and extend coverage in the right place at the right time.

Moving the connection closer to the user provides faster, more reliable data connections and higher data throughput on 3G and 4G networks and secure Wi-Fi access. Meaning users can enjoy streaming video and mobile TV in busy urban locations like shopping malls and sports stadiums, with no service degradation and the added bonus of improved battery life.

Small cells mixed with macro cells, allow operators to quickly and cost-effectively offload up to 80 percent of traffic at peak times. By 2015, ABI Research predicts, 48 percent of mobile data traffic will be offloaded from the macro network.

However, delivering on the capacity promise takes more than a well-designed box.

Deployment has been the main barrier to adoption. The process for small cell rollouts is fundamentally different to macro cells. The three key constraints are typically:

  • Sharing spectrum and managing contention between macro and small cells.
  • Site selection and acquisition.
  • And backhaul.


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