Orange radio network head identifies gap in small cell market

Between the big DAS and the single operator distributed small cell lies a middle ground, and a market opportunity for the enterprising vendor?

There is a gap in the market for a new class of solution to enable operators to cost-effectively meet in-building coverage and capacity demands, according to Benoit Graves, Head of Radio Access Network Strategy for Orange.

Speaking at a Huawei-sponsored seminar at SCWS World, Graces said that DAS is currently the only technically sensible option for a multi-operator deployment to provide dedicated in-building coverage in large venues. But it’s much too expensive for most business cases. “DAS can be crazy in terms of cost,” in Graves’ words.

Conversely, distributed small cell solutions – e.g.Huawei’s Lampsite, Ericsson’s Radio Dot and Commscope’s OneCell – are as yet limited to being mono-operator. “Distributed small cells are only a good fit where mono-operator is not a constraint,” he said.

What is needed, Graves said, is something that bridges the gap – either a radically cheaper DAS product, or a multi-operator small cell solution.

At the moment there are some moves to try and add multi-operator capability to small cells. One idea, last floated to my ears by SpiderCloud, has been to see each carrier in multi-carrier small cells as a potential discreet carrier for an operator. But this, of course, relies on operators being limited to a single frequency.

Another approach has been to deal with the multi-carrier aspect further back in the network, at a gateway node that handles authentication for a cluster of small cells that can be accessed by users of any operator. ip.access with its virtualised Viper gateway would be an example of this approach.

To my knowledge, there aren’t many (any?) other products, either distributed or standalone small cells, that are specifically marketed as being multi-operator capable.

As for a cheaper DAS – well the vendors are indeed attempting to address the costly components of a DAS deployment by developing active digital DAS that reduce the need for expensive head end units and power attenuator interface panels. I also heard Zinwave recently outline an approach which uses a small cell itself as the signal source for a DAS, with distributed antennas then being fed by a small cell or cells. Zinwave has a live deployment of this approach in Scotland, and says that it can be a cost effective means of employing a DAS.

PROCESS NOT TECHNOLOGY OFTEN THE BARRIER

By the way, Graves added that deploying multiple discreet small cell deployments gets too technically complex if there are any more than about 10 Cell IDs. Also, if small cells are to the foundation for coverage in-building, they must do 3G as well as 4G to support voice and this can be “a bit of a pain” Graves said, necessitating a RNC architecture and being “more costly”.

He also added that combined WiFi and cellular products look attractive but deployments suffer due to process and procedural issues.

“We’ve looked at it many times and it is interesting but in reality if falls apart,” Graves said.

Mainly this is because WiFi and cellular solutions are sold by different divisions within an operator – say a business services team selling cellular solutions and another unit selling customer WiFi. And they are also bought by different departments within an enterprise, with IT controlling WiFi but not cellular access.

In fact, in general small cells suffer as a result of operator process, Graves added. Operators build macro first, and then fill in gaps with small cells. This can lead to creation of a separate small cells team or identity within an operator, working aside from the mainstream as an alternative project.

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