Small cells: where no news is good news

News, news everywhere, and not a drop to report.

I spent a day at the Small Cells World Summit. Normally I would spend at least two days hanging around but I was otherwise engaged this year, so got a different view. Turning up on the third day of the event, the Thursday, I was able to ask that annoying question that normally gets asked of me, “So what’s been the big news?”

And nobody really seemed to know. It seemed there was no really big product launch, contract news or operator deal to speak of. Just a sort of steady as she goes, business as usual feel.  I was a judge on the well run Small Cell Forum Awards, and it was kind of a similar story there. The tide of innovation that has washed in in previous years seems to have ebbed, leaving behind on the high water mark a series of deployment, integration and “enabling” technologies such as optimisation and planning. Many of the entries were essentially rehashes or new applications of technology that were entered in the past two years. That’s a sign of a maturing market.

On a call this week I posited that view to Alan Law, SCF Chair. He agreed that there was a “business as usual” feel, pointing out that many of the presentations were focussed on deployment rather than technology. He leavened that dough with a couple of yeasty extracts: Cisco’s deal to provide small cells to CellularOne via ClearSky’s Small Cells as a service model, and Airvana’s deployment in Kansas to cover an 7,600 seat University arena. The former is an interesting business model; the latter is an important reference for Airvana’s OneCell, but neither would merit more than a small mention in previous years.

And yet… and yet… Broadcom, which supplies SpiderCloud with its dual core SoC, said that that the small cell company was going “gangbusters”. SpiderCloud itself is very excited about its deal with Cisco and the access it gives it to add plugins to Cisco’s enterprise WLAN equipment. It’s also flexing its muscles vis-a-vis its deal with America Movil, which it called “huge” in terms of potential. Another vendor who, for some reason, didn’t want to be quoted saying so, insisted there were a tonne of RFPs currently extant within the small cell space – both indoor and outdoor.

Huawei said it now has 186 commercial deployments of its Lampsite product, all in the last 12-15 months. That’s a big number considering these are large scale deployments. EE said it was well on with small cell trials for indoor, rail routes and rural areas with vendors including Cisco, Huawei, Nokia, Parallel Wireless, SpiderCloud and, perhaps, Airvana. Vodafone presented a clutch of case studies of major enterprise projects across the UK, from the Department of Health to Unilever to WPP (again all with SpiderCloud). Test company Cobham Wireless has a specific new product designed just to speed up the mass testing of small cells based on Qualcomm’s FSMxx chips – a sign of volume production at the ODM level.

Not only this, but there seems to be momentum in the long-awaited services sector as well. Huawei is working with Baidu and other partners on an e-checkin, navigation and precision advert service, enabled by live analytics, in a large shopping centre in Sichuan. SpiderCloud is dealing with players to provide value-add enterprise services, such as edge security. One example is to give enterprise IT managers the same control over what users can access on their phones over cellular as they can over WiFi. The idea here is to head off a lawsuit incurred because somebody is trying to bypass corporate controls, and doing something on their cellular-connected device that they shouldn’t. An edge services node gives an corporate department the same chance to apply policies to cellular access as it can to WiFi. The whole edge services area was given a “turbo boost” (again quotes courtesy of SpiderCloud) by the formation of the Mobile Edge Computing Group within ETSI, with its high profile backing from EE, Vodafone, Huawei, Nokia and Intel.

In other words, there’s plenty of activity out there, so maybe it’s just that the desire (or ability) to trumpet every last little nugget with a press release has dampened. Is it that when the deals are actually being done, the marketing tends to pipe down? Perhaps, then, this is indeed a sign of a more mature market.

The SCF itself takes this view. This in turn has led it to take the decision to expand its mandate to go beyond just small cells into enabling deployment and management of the Het Net in a more holistic way. That gives it a bigger role within the overall industry, of course, and that is also something it is seeking as it looks to put its hand up as a presence within virtualisation of small cells and 5G. Here it has outlined the trade-offs of where architectural splits occur – in terms of RF optimisation and transport costs.

There’s another requirement brewing as well – that of how small cells should interact with WiFi and how they should be integrated with WiFi. Here the SCF also sees a role for itself – not in terms of taking sides in the current LTE-U/LAA debate, but in terms of explaining the deployment and integration options. Law said SCF was in a unique position to sit across cellular and WiFi to define products that were sustainable.