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Size Does Matter - The Year of Small Cells


By: Craig Conaway

Above: Cisco at Mobile World Congress 2013

MWC 2013 was the year of small cells!  It seems like every venue every vendor is somehow in the small cell business.  Cisco not withstanding has launched small cells and with it our new small cell backhaul router the ASR 901S.

Service Providers have taken all the necessary steps to bridge the data demand gap from the 2G voice centric devices to the 4G data centric devices.  They have spent billions on new spectrum, revolutionized their networks with Flat IP Networks and new Access Technologies that are more spectrally efficient (LTE).  They have even cross boundaries that they said would never be crossed and have adopted WIFI as a primary access medium to compliment their licensed RAN to provide even more network scale.  Even with all of those strategies, they still cannot satisfy the ever increasing demand for data.  What to do?

The next strategy is Small Cells.  Small Cells essentially split the Macro cells up into smaller cells that allow frequency re-use which double, triple and even quadruple the amount of data throughput per Mhz of Spectrum in a discrete area. 3G, 4G Licensed small cells and WIFI or a combination of all three seem to be the most popular approach, however as usual the devil is in the details. Can operators afford to deploy small cells?

The problem with deploying small cells is actually not with the small cells themselves, yet with the Backhaul of the small cells.  Already about 30% of global RAN backhaul deployments have switched from TDM and SONET backhaul to a more cost effective Ethernet backhaul architecture, yet the cost to deploy a solution to backhaul 10 times the number of Macro Cell Site Locations may be cost prohibitive when you consider the cost of equipment, power, backhaul and construction.

I am of the opinion that Small Cells will happen, and I believe most analysts agree that this is inevitable that we must have small cells to satiate the data demand.  So what I saw at MWC 2013 was many different approaches that Vendors are exploring to solve the business problem of lowering the cost of deploying and operating small cells.  Ultimately the end game (years away) is a single universal access point with multiple access technologies, driven by one power supply and one fiber backhaul connection, taking up very limited space on a Telephone pole , street light or building that generates as much data throughput as a Macro cell does today.  But we are not there yet…

What I did see:

  • Line of Site LoS and non line of site NLoS packet microwave vendors building solutions to address backhaul where Fiber was not available or too expensive to build.
  • Silicon Vendors promoting next generation designs that integrated RF Backhaul with RF Access technologies
  • Small cell vendors, that were addressing both indoor and outdoor small cell needs for Consumers, Enterprise and Large Venues
  • Small Cell Backhaul Routers which provide the network intelligence to rapidly deploy and monitor networks with hundreds of thousands of endpoints

I saw an industry all focused on solving this business problem albeit with differing methods and technologies, but focused none the less.  I spent a good bit of time promoting Cisco's newest addition to our Mobile Backhaul Portfolio, the ASR 901S.  It addresses the needs that service providers have to extend their existing backhaul networks to allow for the deployment of licensed and unlicensed small cells.  It is designed to be quickly and easily deployed along with small cells to provide power (POE+) , clocking and synchronization and backhaul for the small cells as well as  OAM&P for the IP transport network.  The ASR 901S is designed to be mounted on telephone poles, lampposts and to handle a harsh outdoor environment.  The ASR 901S is a compliment to many of the RF backhaul Solutions I saw, as it provides needed IP/MPLS routing, Power, Clocking and Synchronization for LoS and NLoS systems which they need to become a functional element of a large transport network. 

The ASR 901S is a critical part of the ecosystem that is being developed to enable the deployment and operation of small cells.  Many believe that this platform is the platform that will evolve to become that "all in one"  node which will drive the deployment and operational costs to a tipping point and small cells will be deployed everywhere.  Lets see what MWC 2014 brings

See you next Year!

About the Author

Craig Conaway is a member of the Global Mobile Internet Sales Team at Cisco, with Global responsibilities for our RAN Backhaul Solutions. He has been selling Mobile Networks, including RAN Backhaul since 1995.

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