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Where are the Small Cells?

By Mike Collado
December 8th, 2014

IMG_0301Now its third year (we’ve attended each year), Small Cells Americas continues to expand its audience – attracting more than 750 registrants according to the event organizer with – interestingly – little attendee overlap from the recent LTE North America event.

The conference continues to grow presumably on the promise that small cells are coming.

Really, they’re coming.

That’s what industry experts are saying:

ABI Research believes 2015 will now witness meaningful small cell deployments.

(OTOH, an analyst once quipped that if a prediction doesn’t hit the mark, he simply adds a year to the timeline, so go figure…)

Once upon a time, these events were platforms for platitudes that prompted another analyst to decry that the small cell hype has outpaced reality.

Mercifully – as we observed in posts where we summarized both the Small Cells World Summit and the recent LTE North America – the industry discussion has steadily progressed.

Here’s what we learned…

(For comprehensive coverage, see this update from ThinkSmallCell)

The State of the Union

In his opening remarks, Dr. Alan Law, the new chairman of the Small Cell Forum stated that the industry is progressing how to deploy small cells to densify the network and pointed to (1) backhaul, (2) site acquisition, (3) monetization and (5) network management as key challenges impeding their widescale deployment.

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Which are pretty much the same challenges that Sue Monahan, CEO of the Small Cell Forum shared in her opening remarks six months prior at Small Cells World Summit.

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Stated differently, as AT&T’s Tom Keathley observed, the wireless industry has a ways to go before it is ready for a large-scale deployment of small cells.

Why?

Based on our discussions during the conference, two key reasons stand out.

Lack of a Repeatable Business Process

Our friend Ken Rehbehn (451 Research) last year shared that the absence of a ubiquitous process for the hurdles mentioned above would hinder widescale small cell deployment.

Which we echoed in a post-2013 Small Cells Americas blog update:

… accelerated rollout needs to be automated and deployment simplified like Wi-Fi access points. More importantly, the widescale deployment of small cells means that it will be incumbent upon ALU and Ericsson to work with DAS OEMs and other stakeholders in the ecosystem.

And…

Another insightful presentation was delivered by Teresa McEneny from Cisco who highlighted location based services and analytics as big opportunities within the evolving in-building space and identified the barriers to widespread deployment of small cells to include power, support, backhaul, real estate, cost and need for multi-vendor HetNet.

Put simply, the industry needs to identify ways to make the harder things easier including how to design, build, join, commission, optimize, monitor and manage the network.

(And we would submit that this applies not only to small cells but the other tool in the densification kit, DAS)

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 11.12.06 AMNot Enough Like DAS

Given recent (and perhaps still lingering?) sentiment that small cells would put the DAS industry out of business, it’s ironic that the industry would request that small cells look more like DAS.

A key knock on small cells is that they are singular in purpose.

Those from the DAS industry have already seen this move play out: Sharing is good.

Venue owners don’t want multiple parallel infrastructure. They understand that we live in a BYOD world, so a single operator solution won’t meet tenant needs.

Similarly, they likely have a public-safety communications requirement and thus seek ways to mitigate the expense of a separate solution to comply.

Lastly, they seek ROI. And while the current DAS (and for the matter, small cells) doesn’t provide a business model (our friend Stuart Carlaw from ABI Research describes the industry as being stuck in a “coverage and capacity infinite loop”), it is clear that a single infrastructure with support for multiple services is the answer.

So, we believe both small cells and DAS will evolve by “borrowing” from each other’s best attributes while maintaining their individual and unique qualities that inform where they will be deployed to densify the network.

(For a primer on how to decide which tool to deploy, see a new report by David Chambers at ThinkSmallCell sponsored by SOLiD)

Your Turn

What were your key takeaways from Small Cells Americas?

What do you predict we’ll be talking about in 12 months?

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Sue Monahan (CEO at Small Cell Forum)

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Dr. Alan Law (Chairman at Small Cell Forum)

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Nick Marshall (ABI Research)

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Rupert Baines (Real Wireless)

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Mark Grayson (Cisco)

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Ken Sandfeld (SOLiD)

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Carole Mayhew and the Avren Team

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