Small cells are coming – maybe not until 2015 in volume – but they are coming. How do we know they are coming? Because they provide too many things that operators are going to need: like deep indoor coverage and capacity (most mobile data use is indoor), “hotspot” coverage in high volume areas like stations and stadia and, just as importantly as any of these, the efficient use of available spectrum.
One impact this impending small cell arrival is having is on the growth of design and planning tools for small cells. To date, says Paul Kenworthy, Sales and Marketing Manager, Ranplan, many of these tools have been glorified drawing tools that generate plans and bill of materials lsits for installation engineers. RanPlan thinks it has something different.
Professor Jie Zhang, Principal Consultant at Ranplan and one of the brains behind the company, began his research into radio propagation modelling ten years ago, ingesting around $10 million worth of funding from grant bodies such as EU FP7, EPSRC, EEDA and MOST.
In that time his team has built deep knowledge in characterising radio frequency propagation, enabling to accurately model radio capacity and performance in a variety of environments. Additionally, Ranplan has built up a database of building materials and assessed their characteristics, and has also characterised the performance of cabling, connectors and all the assembled structural assets of a network.
It has taken that research, much of it carried out under the eye of Professor Zhang at Sheffield University, and turned it into a series of software products that are intended to automate indoor small cell and carrier WiFi installations.
iBuildNet, its principal product, was formally launched in June this year. Zhang says that its use can result in 50% greater capacity – due to its optimised radio design.
A radio propagation simulator sits alongside iBuildnet, providing the capability to “predict the effects of buildings and terrain on the propagation of electromagnetic waves, and to predict how the locations of transmitters and receivers within an urban area affect the signal strength.”
Functions include Frequency Optimisation, Cell Optimisation, Topology Optimisation and Measurement-based Optimisation to automate small cell and HetNet planning and optimisation processes. More modules that extend the functionality of the core product are on the way, probably in the first quarter of 2014.
One of Ranplan’s largest early customers is Huawei, which has licensed the software to carry out MIMO channel modelling, among other aspects, Zhang says. Another announced customer is China Mobile. Ranplan is also considering providing the software on a white label basis to OEMs, Zhang confirmed.
Even with SON, one aspect is still understanding how SONs work, and post installation you still need clever radio optimisation
But wait a minute – isn’t quite a bit already understood about indoor planning already? And don’t new generation small cells come with things like automatic neighbour discovery and interference management already in-built? Some of them even come with fancy on site controllers that are designed to manage the cells themselves, giving operators and building owners plug and play small cell installation. What’s the need for fancy simulation and propagation modelling – aren’t intelligent small cells supposed to take away a lot of that pain?
Some operators, Kenworthy says, are using the tools within their own research departments to validate those very manufacturer claims. Others are using the tool to test the technical advantages of differing architectures. “The radio planing people have got away with not doing very much. It has been about hotspot maps and designs. Now, with small cells, the requirement moves to considering the radio aspect of those indoor networks,” he says.
Operators also require a third party design and optimisation tool, Zhang says. With LTE and 3G networks likely to come from different vendors, having a unified propagation engine for the whole Het Net is important.
“Even with SON, one aspect is still understanding how SONs work, and post installation you still need clever radio optimisation,” Kenworthy adds. “Customers are interested in tools that allow them to showcase their technical advantages.”
About Ranplan: The company, formed in 2006, now has 60-70 employees across 4 offices in the UK and China. It is privately owned by Managing Director Joyce Wu and an un-named private investor.