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Strong Attendance & High Energy at Small Cells World Summit 2013

By Mike Collado
June 9th, 2013

What a successful week in the Big Smoke for the 2013 Small Cells World Summit!

Shockingly, it was sunny – never rained at all. (We’re told the previous week was hideous.)

According to Small Cell Forum Chairman, Gordon Mansfield, the Summit far surpassed the attendance goal and stretch goal with a final tally of 730 registered attendees. It attracted a global audience of operators, solutions providers and media. Mansfield says there was a significant uptick in new participants and members from the U.S.

Matching the high level of interest was the high level of energy. This was evident in the enthusiastic thought leadership presentations – although some presenters pitched more than counseled. Plus Andy Germano‘s (Small Cell Forum VP of Americas) comedic “roasting” of the industry analysts at the Gala Dinner and Industry Award made new inroads for event ceremonies – great stuff! Our congratulations to the winners including our friend Rupert Baines.

For some great coverage, see our friend David Chambers‘ (Think Small Cell) video and blogging from ALU’s Wilson Street on Day 1 and Day 2 and posts from from Small Cells World Series.

2103: The Year of the Small Cell?

Presentation after presentation and conversation after conversation invoked Dan Jonesprediction that 2013 is the Year of the Small Cell. You’d think these were politicians, not technologists!

We’re not buying it just yet.

But we fully believe the fuse has been lit. And that’s why SOLiD has become a member of the Small Cell Forum.

The conversation has advanced far beyond the early days of femtocells and it is now centered on the broad ecosystem that will make up the HetNet.

We’ll be interested in how the interest and energy as well as deployment advances manifest at the Small Cells Americas event at the end of the year.

Defining the HetNet

Sprint’s Doug Alston did a wonderful job of explaining why we’re even having this discussion by both breaking down the problem and showing the solutions. Alston calls it a “growing” problem due to three key changes in wireless behavior:

  1. Smart devices have enabled users to consume large amounts of bandwidth – namely video – which has caused the oft called “data tsunami”
  2. Users have morphed from mobile to nomadic, so they’re staying put in certain places longer consuming spectrum
  3. Mobile usage has changed from outdoor use to indoor

So the question is how to fill in the capacity gaps?

According to Alston, the HetNet includes the macro cell layer and the small cells layer which helps enable network densification. The small cells toolkit is broad and includes picocells, femtocells, Wi-Fi and DAS.

The Old Versus the New

Given that we were at an event called Small Cells – not DAS or Wi-Fi – one must take the presentations from the week with a certain grain of salt.

For instance, Sprint’s Doug Alson – in a moment of levity – declared the operator was giving up and no longer resisting Wi-Fi as a capacity tool to help fill in for macro spectrum holes.

It’s an interesting admission given how operators have traditionally been wary of Wi-Fi’s unlicensed spectrum and championed small cells instead.

More tellingly, it speaks to the reality that spectrum is finite and there are only two ways to address it: (1) acquire new spectrum frequencies which is both expensive and time-consuming or (2) surgically deploy small cell technologies where needed.

The acceptance of Wi-Fi may continue to grow – at least in the short term – as Sue Rudd at Strategy Analytics suggests that Wi-Fi may be a stop-gap until small cell deployments really kick in. Besides, Wi-Fi is, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance‘s Ed Figueroa, a mature and affordable technology that offers a low cost-per-bit.

The other debate concerns DAS or Distributed Antenna Systems…

Perhaps there’s a tendency to see the world in binary terms with winners and losers. For instance, a popular question at industry events is, “Will Small Cells be the end of DAS?”

(Ironically, some postulate that DAS is the original small cell.)

The naysayers cite the high costs for deploying DAS which the industry typically pegs around $1 per square foot.

The proponents point out that DAS has a huge upside – at least for now – to small cells: neutral host. Meaning, the costs of site planning, acquisition, installation, power and backhaul can be spread among multiple operators.

We’ve long believed that there won’t be a single winner; rather, the toolkit will be broad to include both new (small cells) and the old (DAS & Wi-Fi) solutions. Besides, DAS will likely evolve to more closely resemble smalls with the neutral host value proposition of supporting RF and IP on a single, digital platform.

More to Debate…

There’s still more to sort out and it has to do with Small Cells and Backhaul.

Until recently, the connection between the two – pun intended – wasn’t top of mind. Last year, iGR‘s Iain Gillott called backhaul the elephant in the room: ” how do you reliably, effectively and efficiently get the traffic to and from the small cell?”

The debate this week was do you place the small cell where you need coverage or do you place the small cell where there is backhaul?

To be sure, it’s really a question of QoE versus TCO.

According to Monica Paolini at Senza Fili Consulting, if you put the small cells where you need them, it can be very expensive for backhaul. OTOH, if you design around reduced backahul costs – and let’s remember that operators prefer fiber for backhaul – performance is likely to suffer.

AT&T’s David Orloff says it’s an obvious win if operators can design RF around existing transport availability.

But clearly that’s not always going to work. The need to surgically place the hotspots where capacity is needed was repeatedly stressed throughout the week.

Part of the answer to the question lies in how a small cell will be used. Specifically, will it support capacity spikes or consistently fill a general area?

We expect this discussion to become a key theme.

A Final Thought

Stepping back and digesting all of the discussions from the events thus far in 2013 (there’s been a lot of them – Gordon Mansfield and I added up all miles we’ve accrued for events  since January), we’re left with a key trend: convergence.

We’re witnessing the industry movement toward the convergence of cellular and public-safety through the efforts of FirstNet.

The DAS industry is seeking ways to converge RF and IP – beyond just Wi-Fi.

The wireless industry is converging macro and small cell networks as a Heterogeneous Network.

We believe – similarly – that wireless and wireline backaul are moving closer to work more holistically.

And it follows then that small cells will seek to become less standalone and more homogeneously carrier neutral.

Your Turn

Did you attend SCWS? What were your key observations?

Small Cell Industry Award Winners 2013 (courtesy of the Small Cell Forum)

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