Doesn’t it seem as though small cells are akin to a politician’s stump speech? They’re the “hot topic” to namedrop. But like, say, a politician’s healthcare issue, the details tend to remain murky at best or simply just left out.
In the case of small cells, the details we’re referring to are backhaul.
Our friend Iain Gillot recently hit the nail on the head in his May 4th iGR Opinion:
The elephant in the room is backhaul – how do you reliably, effectively and efficiently get the traffic to and from the small cell?
Well, backhaul got its due at CTIA Wireless 2012 last week in New Orleans.
(BTW, it was great to have CTIA in New Orleans for many reasons including the fact that the Crescent City still desperately needs the business generated by the influx of 30,000 attendees for a major event)
The Case for Small Cells
Simon Saunders of the Small Cell Forum defines small cells as:
… low-power wireless access points that operate in licensed spectrum, are operator-managed and fetaure edge-based intelligence. They provide improved cellular coverage, capacity and applications for homes and enterprises as well as metropolitan and rural public spaces.
In our meeting with Professor Saunders, he described the insatiable user demand for bandwidth and the fact that there isn’t enough Radio Access Network (RAN) spectral efficiency as key drivers for the adoption of small cells.
In other words, operators can’t keep installing macro towers – cell sites need to get smaller and closer to where the users are to ensure capacity and quality of service (read: low latency).
To further build the case for small cells, here are a sampling of statistics from the small cell and backhaul sessions at CTIA…
- Mobile data traffic will increase 18x by 2016.
- 80% of mobile phone use occurs indoors.
- 29% of mobile traffic will NOT be handled by the macro network by 2013 or later (Michael Howard at Infonetics Research).
And, according to Infonetics, the global small cell market is expected to grow rapidly, with 3 million small cells shipping and the market worth about $2.1 billion by 2016.
But therein lies the problem: getting traffic to/from the small cell in a manner that’s cost effective, scalable and fast to deploy.
The Backhaul Dilemma
Derek Kerton of The Kerton Group uses an analogy that small cells solve one problem but create another: solving the bandwidth demand problem via small cells is akin to inflating a balloon whereby inadequate backhaul capacity chokes the network just like trying to release the air through a restricted opening.
Consider the “Super Bowl Effect” in which 60% of mobile traffic at this year’s Super Bowl was uplink traffic. And going-forward, video and bandwidth-intense mobile applications are only going to increase.
So backhaul (or fronthaul) is a paramount consideration for the successful deployment of small cells.
A key issue in solving the backhaul problem, according to Jennifer Pigg at Battle Green Research (a Yankee Group affiliate), is cost. Put simply, wireless operators must try to reconcile a stagnation of user ARPU which has resulted 2 percent growth in CAPEX against the huge increase in data use that has been doubling every 3 years.
Clearly, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for backhaul.
The toolkit includes fiber, microwave, millimeter wave and copper solutions.
What’s the Right Backhaul Solution?
It was cited during a panel that between 2012 and 2016, $800 billion will be spent on backhaul equipment.
The key emerging locations will be at high schools and higher education campuses as well as at shopping centers.
With mobile usage increasingly nomadic, planning for backhaul can no longer be an afterthought.
Operators and industry experts are telling us that the solution most appropriate to deploy depends on whether there is fiber at the small cell site.
And oh by the way, Operators prefer fiber because – according to Iain Gillot – it’s reliable, scalable and cost-efficient.
We have our own take on small cell backhaul which, together with iGR’s Iain Gillot, we will present at DAS Congress on Tuesday, May 22 during the session “DAS Trends – What’s Hot & What’s Next?”
Hint: think fiber multiplexing, point to multi-point (PMP), ultra low latency, zero jitter/packet loss, low CAPEX and very low OPEX.
What are the key considerations for backhaul and what are the pros/cons of available solutions?