Why small cell deployment vital for telecoms in India

Small cells to reduce Capex
Rajiv Kapur, senior director of Business Development, Broadcom India, says the evolution of small cell technology has dovetailed with increasing user data requirements, from the home to public spaces to the enterprise.

Combine the rapid rise in over-the-top (OTT) content streaming and the rapidly emerging Internet of Things (IoT) with more than 20 billion connected devices by 2020, and it’s not hard to see why small cells play such a vital role in giving operators and their subscribers’ seamless data services.

This need is quickly addressed by small cells, with their ability to enable network densification. This has spurred a number of initiatives in the past year, particularly at the enterprise level, where business users can ill-afford to lose connections at an inopportune moment.

Telecom network operators are making clear moves toward small cells and heterogeneous networks that incorporate licensed LTE and 3G bands as well as unlicensed Wi-Fi, starting with enterprise deployments for business clients. Using figures from Mobile Experts, the Small Cell Forum estimates that to date, 75 telecoms have deployed roughly 10 million small cells, and according to analysts’ market research, when combined with increased levels of activity on the ground, deployments will continue to accelerate.

The wireless radios in small cells provide affordable relief to the carrier network. Essentially, they help mobile operators offload data traffic from macro base stations to smaller, more localized small cell networks equipped with a variety of different backhaul technologies. Small cells intelligently manage any overlap between other small cells and larger macro base stations by constantly monitoring the spectral environment to make the best possible decision as to which cell should service a given user.

Wi-Fi and constraints

While Wi-Fi will undoubtedly play an important role in addressing global demand for data, it cannot support the bandwidth needs of smart cities on its own. Wi-Fi’s biggest constraint is that it was not designed to support handover connectivity the way cellular networks currently do — an important consideration given that end users continually move from location to location throughout the course of the day.

Small cells, on the other hand, have the potential to allow handovers to occur seamlessly and completely in the background. End users wouldn’t even notice that their connection had been shifted from one service to another, except to see that they had additional reception bars on their mobile devices. Industry will likely figure out how to make seamless hand-offs possible, but we’re not there yet.

Until that occurs, mobile operators will likely just cobble together the necessary bandwidth by snatching bits and bytes from the diverse network technologies available in any given location (e.g., 3G, LTE, Wi-Fi access points, and small cells). Eventually, as a smart, self-organizing wireless ecosystem becomes possible, this could lead to improved mobile device battery life. What’s increasingly becoming clear is that this combination of heterogeneous networks (HetNets) over a wide range of licensed (e.g., 3G and LTE) and unlicensed (e.g., 802.11x) spectrum, which will include macrocells, Wi-Fi access points and public/residential small cells, will be key to keeping our cities connected in the future.

Why Small cells

Small cells are roughly defined as anything smaller than a macrocell — including microcells, picocells and femtocells— and have a range of anywhere from 10 meters to 3 kilometers, depending on the environment. Their main purpose is to extend range, expand throughput and maintain quality of service for subscribers by effectively re-using spectrum to lessen the load on macrocells at times or in places of peak data or voice activity.

Telecom network operators look to macrocells with the idea of covering huge swatches of land. That might work for the most part, but there are areas that macrocells struggle to reach – lower floors of office buildings, streets below high-rise towers, rural or rugged areas and new housing developments, to name a few.

Small cells are also particularly useful where you have large numbers of people descending upon a particular location for an event, such as a soccer game or concert. For their part, operators are able to make better use of the spectrum they own, while also being able to save on costs by ensuring areas of specific and transient user density are catered to fully, without the enormous cost of installing a full macrocell where a Wi-Fi access point or a licensed LTE or HSPA+ microcell, picocell or femtocell may be sufficient.

Slow take off for small cells

The reason may be two-fold, involving both technological and deployment challenges. On the technology front, managing network interference between outdoor small cells and macrocells is a continuing challenge for achieving successful public outdoor deployments.

To maximize outdoor small cell efficiency, operators and carriers will need to come up with a network process for continually monitoring and tuning small cell configurations as a function of users’ traffic. On the deployment front, the challenge involves dealing with the wide range of phones operating at different velocities within an urban setting, and at times, the lack of suitable sites for small cell placement.

As small cells emerge in applications from the home to stadiums and the enterprise, both businesses and consumers can expect a much improved user experience with faster downloads, smoother handoffs, lower latency and greater reliability.

Small cells in India

We see tremendous opportunity in India. According to a recent Deloitte report, India is on the cusp of a data revolution and wireless towers in the region are primed for a transformative period. As more and more Indian consumers replace standard cellphones with smartphones, demands on the network are at an all-time high. This explosion of data demand and switch from pay-as-you-go voice phones to pay-as-you-go smartphones is what Deloitte predicts will transform India’s tower industry over the next five years.

Carriers and telecom operators in India are readying themselves to follow the same path as other global carriers in leveraging small cell technology as part of their overall HetNet approach. In the United States, for example, the top three carriers – Verizon Wireless, AT&T and Sprint – are reportedly investing millions of dollars in small cell technology.

When used in combination with other network management technologies such as more efficient macrocells and Wi-Fi offloading, small cells provide better cellular and wireless coverage for end users, while at the same time helping carriers to cost-effectively better manage data traffic.

Rajiv Kapur serves as Broadcom Senior Director of Business Development, India.