Planning tools to take away one pain point of enterprise small cell rollouts

Design and planning tools designed to speed up the process of deploying enterprise small cells at scale are coming to market.

One interesting comment from this interview with NSN’s VP Portfolio Management was that the design and planning tools that operators use can actually hinder the deployment of new technology that could actually provide a benefit to those network planners.

The reason is that their planning software wasn’t modelled to include the latest or newest technology (in Robrecht’s example it was active antennas). Therefore it’s tempting for them to stick with what they know.

Indoor small cell planning brings different challenges even to outdoor – there is the issue of interference cancellation and coordination between cells in the building, as well as with signal coming into the build from outside. There’s clearly a move to provide planning tools that make the business of deploying indoor coverage solutions easier.

Small cells enthusiast SpiderCloud created basic planning software as a smartphone app within its EASY30 programme – to provide a rough outline design tool that is intended to act as a pre-sales tool for operator enterprise sales teams.

SpiderCloud said that the sales team at Vodafone Netherlands wanted something that would enable them to get a quicker stop-go on deciding whether to go ahead with a full design and quote. The company viewed the need for such a tool as a sign that Vodafone was looking to scale up its indoor rollouts capability and needed something quicker than a full survey to allow its sales teams to speedily put together an offer for potential customers. The app, which prompts users for input such as the number of floors, type of building, furniture layout etc gives a rough impression of the RF design and cost (SpiderCloud said it is usually accurate to about 25% of the final design). That gives the sales team enough information to decide how to move ahead next.

Also trying to take some of the pain away from indoor network planning is iBwave, which was demonstrating iBwave Mobile, a smartphone and tablet-based design tool that is intended to make site surveys and network design accessible to non-expert personnel. The tool allows users to drop access points selected from a catalogue of commercial products onto a floor plan and see the coverage and throughput they would provide, and what interference they would cause or encounter.

iBwave’s tool could be seen as the stage after SpiderCloud’s in that it provides an actual design, rather than a mere order of magnitude calculation. But iBwave execs said that the trend behind its development is still the same – to make design and planning easier, and less technically demanding, for operators so that they can roll out to more locations in a shorter time, at less cost.

The tool works by importing a floor plan of the company, floor or building to be covered. It also has a complete catalogue of small cells on the market, power levels, frequencies supported and so on. Once a floor plan has been mapped and a supplier selected, the engineer can select his small cell product (it’s likely that this decision has already been made by the operator having a commercial relationship in place) and input likely access point locations. The tool then displays coverage areas, predicted throughput, and any internal-internal or external-internal interference issues.

If you want to know if the enterprise small cells market is going anywhere, perhaps it’s the quick and easy end of the market, tools that mask the complexity of the full design, that may be interesting to keep an eye on.

As important as the actual design process, the tool provides full documentation of the process and can include photographs and video taken on site of the installation. It’s aimed at IT staff or field technicians, rather than highly qualified RF engineers, so having a document that can be retrieved and understood by other teams is important to operators.

iBwave admitted the software will go through a series of developments. But the interesting point of both these tools is that they are signs that operators are beginning to look at tools that let them get to market quicker, using personnel that have had no more than a day or so training in using the software.

These companies are not alone in developing indoor planning tools. RanPlan is one company that delivers highly detailed plans for indoor and indoor-outdoor RF coverage. CelPlan is another that was showing indoor RF design capabilities with a detailed product called CelTrace, that uses “3D vector databases with planar objects, each with their own individual properties, combined with propagation models to compute path loss and wide-band properties of the radio links inside buildings”. These full scale propagation modelling tools are meant for a slightly different purpose – and include the detailed simulation of the impact of MIMO and beam forming technologies, and well as multiple radio standards.

But if you want to know if the enterprise small cells market is going anywhere, perhaps it’s the quick and easy end of the market, tools that mask the complexity of the full design, that may be interesting to keep an eye on. Are these tools premature and trying to manufacture market demand, or responding to a genuine barrier in a race that is well under way?

Given the download activity following the Small Cell Forum’s Release 2 (Enterprise) last year, and the movement by DAS and cell vendors to make indoor products a strategic point of differentiation, you’d think it is more likely to be the latter than the former.