Small Cell industry in North America about to enter sprint phase (with a small s)

Gordon Mansfield, Chair of the Small Cell Forum, and AVP, Small Cell Solutions, at AT&T, speaks to Keith Dyer on the small cell market in the Americas and the Small Cell Forum's Release 2.

People see the USA as a leading market for small cells now, would you agree with that.

I think that North America and Asia are probably both in that category. In number of deployments Asia is a little ahead but with all the major operators in the US having made public statements that they are moving out on small cells it’s safe to say that North America is about to shift into a sprint phase as regard to small cells.

What’s driving that?
A number of things. All the operators have shifted to LTE and so as you shift to LTE that starts to utilise the remaining spectrum that was available. Once that gets used you start to run into asking how do I continue to grow that capacity. And once LTE networks come on air, you see pockets where the capacity gets chewed up, and when that happens small cells become viable to put in place to augment coverage.

Everyone thinks about capacity but the simple truth is that a lot of times you’ve got traffic demands in areas of moderate coverage, and that actually takes up more capacity than otherwise is needed. And so when you augment that coverage you not only improve coverage but you get back a lot of capacity to the network, so that together improves the experience for those customers but for everybody because it’s giving a lot of capacity back.

What are the known timelines for operators?
From an AT&T perspective we are deploying 40,000 small cells over the next three years. If I look at Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile they’ve all stated in some shape or form that they’re currently in trials and planning to move into mainstream deployments in 2013/14, so it’s safe to say that 2014 is where everybody really starts to ramp up their game.

And in Latin America?
I would say there is tremendous interest in Latin America as well. They are developing their plans now, and I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see announcements and deployments in Latin America in 2014 and onwards. They have had some regulatory rules that might have been problematic (read more on this here) but I understand in Brazil specifically that situation has recently improved dramatically.

Tell us about the Small Cell Forum’s Release 2 , which has been released today.

The release has 25 new or significantly revised documents that really cover everything from the business case to deployment types, architecture, integration with WiFI, the whole thing is a pretty comprehensive package and and I’m pleased with the work of the Forum on it.

We’re pretty excited about that, when you think about the enterprise we are not just thinking about traditional enterprise organisations: it equally covers retail, medical, government, hotels and so on – so while we coined it as ‘the enterprise’, what we found is that all environments that are focused on indoor coverage are in play.

What’s the aim with the Release Programme?

By creating themes we allow our 13 work groups and Special Interest Groups to focus their work effort on that theme. So through that we then put together a comprehensive package for operators trying to figure out how to take that next step. A lot of operators say small cells are critical but have a lot of questions about how to go about it. The intent is to give operators – and vendors – a ‘what you need to know’ guide to addressing tha.

That runs from the business case, to conceptually how to design a service, to some tool that may need, SON architecture, WiFi integration, there’s a comprehensive package that says if you are struggling in any one of these areas, have a look and see that there are things here that helps.

Equally for vendors it highlights what the table stakes are. For example, voice. In enterprise, people often tout the value added services that networks can provide yet I think voice is still a killer app, you’ve got to provide a high quality and that’s become crystal clear in the work that’s been done.

What impact on the market did you see with Release 1 (the residential Release made in February 2013)?

We’ve had 30,000 downloads of various documents from R1. That certainly exceeded my expectations. We’ve also seen the chatter has driven a lot of incremental interest and that means we have more people coming to the table to help us solve problems. Look at our plenary, since the Release programme our attendance levels are at a record numbers.

It’s amazing to me to see the number of working groups, calls, number of operators participating directly – all the indications tell me that everything is clicking kind of well, we’ve had so much more engagement and enthusiasm to solve the problems facing the industry.