The downs and ups of the small cell market

Small Cells World Summit World (the event with one too many Worlds in the title) combined a somewhat downbeat feel in many conference sessions with a more upbeat message from the suppliers.

At SCWS World, as is perhaps natural, many conference sessions and panels in particular seemed to still be doing battle with the remaining challenges and barriers to small cell deployment.

In the past these challenges were how do we handle interference, handle management of a small cell layer, how do we get backhaul to small cells? Thanks to longstanding efforts by standalone small cell vendors to create interoperability and management interface standards, and as the major vendors have moved into the small cell space creating unified product portfolios, the first two are less of an issue. The backhaul issue is still live but being solved either by the presence of more fibre – especially as cities and governments prioritise connected cities – or by proven and commercialised micro and mmWave solutions from the likes of CCS.

So now the outstanding barriers have boiled down to overcoming lengthy site and planning authorisation processes, and to the business models that justify investment in dense small cell deployments. Panel after panel seemed to wrestle with neutral host models and shared small cell investments as a means to restructure the cost burden away from the mobile network operator. They lamented the seeming short-sightedness of landowners in demanding high fees for site access and in failing to invest in decent wireless infrastructure support. If the building owner invests, how does it make its money back; if the operator invests ditto? Round and round we went.

Even where the site “owner” is not interested in making lots of money, the multi operator model looked too hard. The City of London, which has facilitated a 400-strong small cell rollout to improve coverage as a benefit for workers and visitors to the “square mile” financial centre, is only making a small sum from the deal (a projected £18 million over a 15 year term). Yet it has gone for a single operator (O2) small cell rollout for its concession rather than find a way of structuring a multi-operator deal so that customers of all four networks can benefit from this better-connected city.

Addressing the business case in general (not related to the City of London) David Morris, senior radio engineer, Telefonica O2, said they would welcome a neutral host model to share the cost – in other words we’ll put small cells down if someone else pays for [all or part of] it. Well, yes. Does the someone else also get the value?

Building owners said they needed good wireless network performance but it was hard to monetise, they just needed it as table stakes. Building developers are not, of course, mandated to include any guaranteed level of support for wireless networks. Ritchie Peng, President of Small Cells, Huawei, wondered if we could get some standardised way of including network support in building design. There didn’t seem to be many takers.  Burcu Kozlak, 5G Project manager, Amsterdam 5G city project, said the city wants to have a mission critical system in place for the Euro football champs in 2020 – providing a sort of corridor of high performance connectivity from the airport to the centre of the city and to the stadia. This would support public safety comms, as well as support for sensors and tracking, cctv and security. Is the city considering any sort of shared network infrastructure to achieve this? It seems not.

As for planning and authorisation – in the City of London itself the authority regarded the Nokia small cells being used as de minimis – and they went through on the nod. The City of London’s Steven Bage said he had heard of some London councils that are insisting on a planning application for every single small cell deployment. “That is a nonsense”, he said.

Yet not everyone was on the downer.

Reasons to be cheerful

Irvind Ghai, Vice President for the Connectivity Business Unit of Qualcomm Technologies said his company doubled revenues (roughly equivalent to number of shipments) from its small cell chipsets from 2017-2018.

Nokia’s Stephane Daeuble said he is seeing momentum in the USA, Latam and Middle East and Asia, and wondered if the event’s location in Europe was creating the slightly downbeat vibe. Certainly Alok Shah, of Samsung USA, was upbeat about both 4G and 5G deployments in the USA. This was mirrored by Airspan, which is shipping hundreds of thousands of its Qualcomm-based MagicBox (an LTE Relay cell) to Sprint.

Daeuble also pointed out another growth area for small cells – enabling private LTE networks, either with a cellular licensed spectrum anchor or in a standalone MulteFire way. In fact Daeuble is now heading up Nokia’s efforts to directly address enterprise and industrial use cases for its network solutions. He sees the increased need for tracking, robotics, sensor connectivity and so on as a crucial potential driver for small cell deployments – whether installed by an operator or in unlicensed spectrum by the enterprise itself.

Nokia’s Randy Cox said 2018 is the year of LAA in North America “with commercial deployments in a large way”, and added that he would like to see that momentum go global. Less likely to go global any time soon is the booming success of CBRS in the USA, where there are already dozens of network deployments within enterprise environments. He also said he was beginning to hear that building owners were willing to pay for the network, “and I haven’t heard that to this point.”

Samsung’s Alok Shah said that in the USA the company is seeing increasing demand for LTE small cells as an indoor capacity option. “We think LTE small cells have a lot of runway still,” he said. Although it cannot say much about it, the company is also seeing small cell deployments go ahead with Verizon “in the markets we have been allocated.”

Ericsson’s Martin Ljungberg said that the company’s dual band Radio Dot is doing especially well in China where “we see Dots going in to high profile buildings where they want to have good performance – and it’s very easy to deploy”. The Dot and solutions like it (Huawei’s LampSite/ZTE’s Qucell are in general winning business from DAS which are constrained in terms of spectrum Band support).  Ljungberg conceded that although Ericsson’s standalone picocell product, the RBS6402 is now functionally where Ericsson would like it to be by providing dual band with LAA support,  it is still more of a point product. “In general the pick up of the pico market has not been as high as people expected a few years ago, but there is a market need; it’s not millions but in the tens of thousands.”

All this and 5G to come

5G is likely to be led by macro deployments, as operators begin operations at sub 6 GHz bands, including the 3.5 GHz space. But certainly in the mmWave bands for 5G – if and when those come in dense urban environments – then you are de facto looking at these being small cells. And indoors, with higher capacities increasingly required and 3.5GHz macro deployments unlikely to get far inside buildings, there could be a specific 5G indoor small cell demand as well.

So the vendors are announcing 5G small cell products. Ericsson has already said it will have a 5G Radio Dot in 2019.  Ericsson’s 5G Dot will be fed by its 5G-upgraded ERS baseband. The distributed radios themselves are “5G” in the sense that they can support new frequency bands, and can handle higher order MIMO. The 5G NR capability is provided by the supporting baseband. Ericsson says that 5G Dots will likely be added next to a LTE Dot – and it has made some enclosures that can contain both dots side by side.

Bending towards the Dot/Lamp Site/Qucell architecture for the first time Nokia is proposing mini 5G distributed antennas that will be fed by its AirScale macro BBU and can themselves be daisy chained off a FlexiZone small cell for power and cabling.

At the start of the week, Qualcomm announced a 5G small cell chipset that would be available from 2019. Qualcomm’s Ghai said that the chipset takes the same building blocks from a 5G NR standpoint and leverages that into a networking backplane for an access device.

“It is still the same ARM-based architecture that we leverage on our current platform, the 4G LTE and WiFi SoCs: the reason is that you can reuse some of the software stacks you had in 4G and upgrade them into the 5G instruction set – that’s one reason we were able to accelerate the schedule to sample to the customers next year.”

Ghai said that the bigger challenge is to make it in the form factor that supports power over Ethernet, and in an architecture that is also paired up with its WiFi SoC. “So if the operator or OEM wants to have WiFi coexist with a small cell it’s a very cost effective architecture in which you take the 5G piece and pair it up with to create a complete solution.”

That split also enables the use of the chipset within a RRH-centralised baseband architecture, Ghai said.

“Our traditional architecture is a completely integrated solution with everything in one package. In the 5G device we can pair it up with our WiFi SoC so that by definition it is a split, open architecture. So instead of pairing up with WiFi SoC we can have these different RRHs based based on the FSM 100xx architecture connected to a centralised processing device. In our previous generations this would not have been possible. It allows us get to market faster from the same silicon, and as the 5G market takes off we can see which portion of the market we can support to make a complete integration down the road.”

Samsung’s Shah said that the company’s real world trials and simulations had revealed some positive signs for mmWave small cells outdoors. He said that the company had found that by locating the access points just 2 metres up a pole it can get better performance than going up to a more normal 7 metres. That’s because it keeps the antennas below the level of tree foliage, and also provides more surfaces to create reflective paths. And simulations of a dense urban environment, in this case Seoul, has shown that a dense LTE grid will be sufficient to support mmWave access points, without requiring a further densification. 

Change is eternal:

One notable aspect of the Exhibition alongside the conference was how much it reflected the changed nature of the small cell market itself.

Amongst current and recently past access point vendors, those not exhibiting included ip.access, Cisco, Commscope/Airvana, Qualcomm (meeting room), Nokia (meeting room), Samsung, Fujitsu, Argela, Parallel Wireless, SpiderCloud (Corning), ZTE (politics).

In signs of an ecosystem shakeout, previously active software and technology stack platform vendors Radisys, Aricent, Node-H* (see update below) were all absent. There were no signs of any SOC vendor, such as Freescale, Broadcom, TI and so on.

There were some newer faces, such as DAS provider Zyxel, and a renewed digital DAS (rather than small cell) focus from Comba. There were niche use case providers, such as high power at low form factor hardware platform provider Allen Vanguard, and a complete Cavium-based quadband small cell design from cellXica. Installers and integrators were also more evident, such as iWireless and AWTG. And there were the 60 GHz equipment developers such as BluWireless and Sivers IMA.

 * Update: Although Node-H did not exhibit at the event, the company has been in touch to state that it did attend and was “actively participating” with its partners.  Rejecting the implied attachment to any “ecosystem shakeout”, it added that it presented a paper on hyperdense deployments in Beijing the previous week as part of a SCF Workshop, pointing out lessons from “the largest small cell deployment in the world”.