My Femto is Bigger Than Your Femto

After spending 50% of October at conferences either focused on (Informa Small Cells) or hijacked by (4G World) “small cells” I’ve been itching to highlight some of the new opportunities for the greater femto market. However, before going too far I need to take a second to marvel at the amazing transformation a simple face lift has compelled upon the often maligned and sometimes polarizing femtocell. Expanding the concept of the residential femto to include a multitude of different types of small base stations as well as both 3G and LTE air interfaces has transitioned even the staunchest naysayers (ahem, Ericsson) into a chorus of believers. The small cell age is truly upon us and the boldest of us are not afraid to point out that this would not be the case if not for the pioneering advances of cost optimization, zero-touch installation and self-optimization born of the residential femto revolution. Now, I kindly ask that you please stay with me as I step from my soap box and get to the heart of the matter.

In its simplest terms, there are very tangible reasons for embracing small cells. Those who spend too much time hopping from conference to conference have certainly heard the simplified physics arguments behind the need for cell splitting (i.e. closer to the antenna means better performance, less users per cell equals greater throughput per user, more cells provides increased capacity, and so on), but the energy behind small cells goes well beyond the network benefits. We are experiencing a rapid emergence of a whole bushel of new applications and deployment models being shouldered by the small cell army.

For example, just the other day I commented on a story regarding Vodafone’s move to use small cells for rural coverage. This rural application of small cells simultaneously allows operators to reach locations where it is simply too expensive to cover with a traditional macro cell as well as to cost effectively achieve compliance with regulatory demands to utilize all the spectrum (even the less desirable lots) they have been awarded.

However, it is not just about rural – small cells provide the potential to change how networks are deployed. Operators are now looking at various tiers or types of cells, from hot spots to deal with a lot of slow-moving or stationary subscribers in a specific location (e.g. an airport or coffee shop) to hot zones that cover a few blocks of “power users” (think Wall Street) to picocells covering a campus or enterprise environment. The small cell is rapidly becoming an invaluable tool for the operators in its quest to provide competition crushing coverage and capacity. 

This is not to say the deployment of small cells is not without its challenges and I wouldn’t start going from lamp post to lamp post searching for your local base station quite yet. Expanding the scope of small cells from the relatively well-defined residential use case has increased the complexity of interference mitigation and self-organization, especially as these devices are becoming an extension of the operator network as opposed to a mostly consumer device. Questions around multi-vendor SON, deployment logistics (i.e. how to identify the “hot zone” where you need these small cells, renting space on buildings and lamp posts, etc.), and what radio interfaces to support (i.e. 3G, LTE, Wi-Fi, all) are being addressed, but still remain. None the less I’m a staunch believer in the innovative spirit of our industry and the motivational power of the almighty dollar or yen or euro or … that the answers to these challenges are within reach and we will certainly spend a few future blogs addressing them. For now, I invite you to sit back and bask in the glory of the small cell opportunity.

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