Tips to telecom operators on small cells and Wi-Fi offloading

Berg Insight has shared a number of tips to telecom operators on small cells and Wi-Fi offloading which will become vital to handle mobile data growth.

Small cell base stations will grow to 40 million units by 2018 from about 4.1 million units worldwide in 2012, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 46.2 percent, said Berg Insight.

Small cells — femtocells, picocells and microcells — are designed to complement the large base stations forming the cellular macro network by providing enhancements in coverage and capacity in locations such as homes, offices and public venues.

50 percent CAGR growth in mobile data and signalling traffic between 2012 and 2018 is the growth driver, said Andre Malm, senior analyst, Berg Insight. Mobile data traffic in cellular networks has already more than doubled every year since 2007.

Significant data traffic can be addressed by adding more spectrum, using advanced radio air interfaces, making the macro layer denser by installing more base stations in traffic hotspots, as well as introducing heterogeneous networks (HetNets).

HetNets will enable 3G telecom operators such as Bharti Airtel, Reliance Communications, Idea Cellular, etc. to manage a much larger number of small cells that increasingly become integrated nodes providing capacity enhancement to the network.

Berg Insight forecasts that the number of active smartphone users worldwide will grow from 1.2 billion at the end of 2012 to 4.0 billion at the end of 2018.

Tips to telecom operators on small cells and Wi-Fi offloading

Operator strategies

In order to meet the rising demand, operators need to use a combination of approaches. These include improving the mobile macro layer by using more spectrum and increasingly advanced radio air interfaces with higher spectral efficiency, making the macro layer denser by installing more base stations in traffic hotspots, as well as introducing heterogeneous networks (HetNets).

SNS Research’s latest report indicates that wireless infrastructure spending on HetNet technologies which include small cells, carrier WiFi, Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) and Cloud RAN is expected to reach $42 billion by 2020.

Several operators have already started to deploy microcells, picocells, femtocells and integrated carrier Wi-Fi network solutions. But this is yet to pick up in India.

Since the introduction of 2G networks, operators have for instance deployed microcells to fill coverage holes in outdoor locations where macro cell deployments were unfeasible and DAS to enhance coverage in public indoor areas.

Early femtocell deployments have mainly focused on enhancing coverage for residential customers. Some operators have started to use femtocells in various indoor public areas to enhance coverage and capacity. With the introduction of HetNets, small cell solutions increasingly become integrated nodes that also provide capacity enhancement to the network.

Furthermore, small cells are increasingly becoming multi-mode solutions, incorporating cellular access technologies including 3G/LTE, in addition to Wi-Fi. HetNets also need to incorporate advanced interference management and Self-Organising Network (SON) technologies to reduce cost and complexity of installation and reduce network Opex.

Making use of Wi-Fi access points in unlicensed spectrum is an increasingly attractive solution as new standardisation and interoperability efforts such as Hotspot 2.0 aim to make the network selection and user identification process seamless.

A microcell is a small cellular base station that covers a limited area such as a shopping centre or a train station, serving up to about 100 simultaneous users. Output power is usually a few watts and the radius of the coverage area ranges between 100 metres and 300 metres, said Berg Insight.

Similar to microcells, picocells add coverage and capacity to small areas such as offices or public venues. There is no clear distinction between microcells and picocells, though picocells are usually smaller, have lower output power and may support fewer simultaneous users. Picocells and microcells are deployed by the operator and are part of the RAN.

ABI Research last month said Chinese telecom vendor Huawei reported RAN revenues of CNY 25.6 billion, representing an estimated increase of 14.1 percent y-o-y for the second quarter of 2013.

On the other hand, Alcatel-Lucent’s RAN equipment revenue decreased 0.8 percent y-o-y to reach a value of $1.10 billion.

Berg Insight says femtocells are low power cellular access points with about 10–100 mW output power, intended to extend coverage in home and office environments, supporting 4–32 simultaneous users.

Femtocells are self-installing plug-and-play devices deployed by customers, using IP broadband connections for backhaul. In contrast to Wi-Fi access points, femtocells are mobile infrastructure components that operate in licensed spectrum.

Berg Insight estimates that mobile operators globally had deployed 4.1 million small cell cellular base stations at the end of 2012, including more than 3.5 million femtocells. Femtocells have mainly been deployed in homes and small offices, but enterprise femtocells can be expected to account for a growing share in the future.

Mobile operators in North America, Japan and South Korea are now also stepping up deployments of open access femtocells, picocell and microcells in public areas to increase mobile network data capacity.

Operators in other countries will gradually follow as data demand increases in hotspot areas. Berg Insight forecasts that the total installed base of cellular small cells will increase to 40 million units in 2018, including 33 million femtocells.

Last month Dell’Oro Group said that even as the macro network is expected to continue evolving, licensed and unlicensed small cells will play a fundamental role complementing the macro network and helping service providers deliver a high quality mobile broadband performance experience.

The report says that NLOS and LOS microwave will account for more than 60 percent of all external backhaul deployments by 2017. Installed base of unlicensed small cells will account for nearly 90 percent of total small cell installed base by 2017. Licensed evolved (metro) small cells to account for two percent of total RAN revenues by 2015.

Baburajan K
[email protected]