Let’s take this fight inside

Time was, if you wanted a fight, you asked someone to take it outside. At MWC14, network vendors are taking the fight inside.

It’s a case of, “step inside and say that”. Of course, this is the high stakes corporate world where everyone is very polite, but if you wanted to see who started it, you could point a finger in an unlikely direction – mild mannered Rajeev Suri. For it was NSN’s CEO who said his company’s new indoor cell might not be as small as “a speck, a dot or a flea”, but could actually do a hell of a lot more.

Or you could point a finger at Ericsson, who may have started the fight as long ago as last autumn when it launched the Radio Dot product that Suri was disparaging. We’re redefining small cells, said Ericsson. Well yes, you literally are, said competitors who pointed out that Ericson is launching a DAS product, not really a small cell at all. Not fazed, Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg repeatedly referred to the Dot in his MWC press conference, and reiterated that it was redefining small cells. Ericsson rubbed salt in the wounds by releasing a clutch of PR publicising operators trialling the Dot.

But is NSN’s new indoor FlexiZone node – the product of which Suri was so proud, any more of a small cell? It supports 400 users, it runs the same software as its macro products, it was repeatedly described as having a macro inside, and it’s actually not physically that small, not compared to the dot (or speck, or flea). That said, it is powered off Ethernet, it is quite small, comes with integrated SON, WiFi, and is designed to be controlled by a local controller node, in the same manner as, say, SpiderCloud’s E-RAN architecture.

Meanwhile, those traditional providers of large scale RF distribution – the DAS providers, are also rolling up their sleeves.

CommScope launched ION-E – which you could view as DAS on stilts. As well as interfaces to the usual DAS signal sources – ie, a base station providing sector coverage to the DAS controller, the ION-E can handle a CPRI front haul interface from a centralised BBU. That means that an operator with a base station hotel could provide resources either to remote radio heads strung up outdoors around a city, but also to the DAS system for indoor coverage.

CommScope has built the ability for IT managers to assign channels to certain access points, to direct a sector to an individual AP, or to simulcast sector capacity to a number of nodes. It’s a look and feel that mirrors IT systems management.

Across the exhibition hall, TE Connectivity was showing off its own CPRI -capable DAS solution that, it says, by being able to distribute RF over a direct optical interface, will be much cheaper than other DAS. This is because it eliminates the Point of Interface processing that conditions power levels via high power RRHs.

The jag is, TE has integrated its CPRI-capable DAS directly with Alcatel-Lucent (with other vendors to come later) because it says CPRI iteration is not interoperable between vendors. So in other words, if you haven’t integrated your CPRI DAS direct with vendors, then you don’t really have CPRI support at all.

Not that this is stopping the “traditional” small cell vendors from upping their game too

Why does this matter? Well a fronthaul connection could bring cellular capacity directly into a building in a multi-service, even multi-operator manner. Repeating coverage through a site using DAS access points and existing Cat6.8 cabling is likely to be cheaper than installing lots of enterprise class small cells.

Not that this is stopping the “traditional” small cell vendors from upping their game too. Cisco (Ubiquisys) just announced en enhanced small cell portfolio, with LTE and WiFi support, and distributed SON.

Operators, then, are faced with an expanding range of choices: dedicated small cells deployed as a separate layer – SON capable and multi-mode; DAS that doesn’t call itself DAS but instead insists it is a small cell; DAS that calls itself DAS but also connects to Cloud RAN deployments; or dedicated small cells that are controlled locally, but also share a control and services architecture with the macro layer.

So this is not a growing squabble about nothing. Far from it. Consider this: CommScope says that there is 30 billion square metres of enterprise work space in the world. Only 2% of that commercial indoor space is covered by a dedicated indoor system. Yet 80% of usage comes from indoors.

That’s why the fight is also heading indoors. Let’s step inside.

Some more indoor links from Day One, Mobile World Congress:
Telenor Norway Deploys Huawei’s LampSite Solution
Small Cell Industry Firsts with Multimode and Small Cell SON