Number of small cells surpasses 6 million with macrocells worldwide totaling 5,925,974

Telecom Lead America: Between October and November 2012, the number of small cells has surpassed 6 million (6,069,224) with macrocells worldwide totaling 5,925,974.

Although the bulk of these numbers (over 80 percent) are made up of residential femtocells, which will alone overtake the total number of macrocells early next year, they also include enterprise and public-access small cells. There are now 45 small-cell deployments including nine of the top 10 operators by revenue globally, according to Informa Telecoms & Media.

This milestone was made possible as mature femtocell deployments start to scale and was best illustrated by Sprint which has now deployed one million femtocells – up from 250,000 in 2011. The report also highlights how new femtocell deployments from Telefonica O2, Orange UK, and Bouygues Telecom over the Summer mean that the UK and France have become the first countries globally where all major operators have deployed the technology. Telefonica O2 has made significant public-access progress with the world’s densest femtocell deployment in east London for the Olympics, as well as the launch of public Wi-Fi in central London which will be upgraded imminently to support licensed small cells.

The emergence of the Small Cell as a Service (SCaaS) model allows third parties to roll out a small-cell network and then rent it to several operators thereby lowering the barrier to entry for deployment and total costs. In this space over the past quarter, Virgin Media announced it is trialing LTE small cells in the UK ahead of launching its Small Cell as a Service offering and Colt Telecom announced it is already in trials with a major European operator. Furthermore, two new companies – Cloudberry Mobile and ClearSky have launched their own offerings in Europe and the US, respectively, targeting smaller operators.

There are now more small cells than macrocells worldwide. The industry has passed a very important milestone and in the process changed the future direction of mobile networks. The days of small numbers of expensive cell towers have given way to the era of high numbers of low cost mini access points. Without this change, the mobile network simply could not sustain the continued growth in data usage.

Such a dramatic network transformation opens up interesting new models and over the past quarter the Small Cell as a Service idea has been gaining traction. It allows third parties to build networks that several mobile operators can use, thereby reducing costs and time to market. At the moment, this is being targeted at major operators that are looking for a simple route to establishing a small-cell network as well as smaller players that have found the barriers to entry too high to date.

Dimitris Mavrakis, principal analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media
[email protected]