The topic of small cells has been a much discussed in the last few years, in both industry and academia. Despite significant investments in this space, the ecosystem awaits the "pick-up" in volume deployments of outdoor, licensed-band, carrier installed small cells. The leaves one wondering if small cells, in their outdoor, zero-footprint and licensed band operation, are riding a hype cycle.


To put the issue into perspective, GSM and 3G "microcells" have been deployed by operators for many years to address network capacity and coverage deficiencies. These were the first types of "small cells": outdoor base stations at low height above ground. More recently, zero-footprint compact base stations incorporating advances in silicon processing and RF technologies to drive the cost of former "microcells" lower through greater integration have become available. The theory goes if small cells are low enough in cost operators would deploy them in volume.


But for outdoor small cells this has not happened, yet. Looking at the technical aspect, and leaving aside business case issues which are in no way less important, a number of issues arise to challenge the mass-scale deployments of small cells. One of the major challenges is self-organizing network (SON) capability in the true and original sense of this definition. Here, by SON I mean the ability to optimize network performance automatically and without human intervention. For a wireless network, this means the ability to optimize network parameters to control interference which has a major impact on performance. It also includes the ability to manage the traffic load on different radio access network elements to provide the user with the best possible service while keeping tab on overall network performance.


When it comes to true SON, I think we are still in the early days. The wireless network features complex interactions between base stations. In the traditional cellular network architecture, this was an interaction between equals: base stations of relatively similar transmit power and coverage area. Adding a small cell layer underneath the macro cell layer increases the complexity of managing the performance by orders of magnitude. The small cells have much lower output power and coverage area. Interference and load can vary significantly at any particular moment. In fact, placing a small cell in the wrong spot reduces network performance.


The complexity is also represented by quantity and variety of data which is spewed out from different network elements constantly. Here, we enter the realm of big data where traditional ways of handling network fault and performance metrics are no longer sufficient in the era of heterogeneous networks, particularly as network 'events' would set to increase dramatically. Fast, automated optimization algorithms become necessary to help the operator in the gigantic task of network optimization resulting from the volume deployments of small cells. In this regards, machine learning techniques would need to be implemented to predict the performance of the network given changes in certain parameters.


SON facilitates the integration of other type of small cells such as indoor residential femto cells, remote radio headends in cloud RAN deployments and Wi-Fi access points. But what happens if these elements are provided by different vendors? Already we see gaps in the implementation of the X2 interface, a major conduit for SON signaling in LTE networks (while X2 messaging has been standardized, the response of the base station is a vendor implementation option). This makes interoperability between the small cell and macro cell layers questionable unless there is a commitment by equipment vendors to collaborate.


As the concept and definition of 'small cells' continues to evolve and expand to include different types of RF transceivers serving a mobile user, the means to manage and optimize the wireless network must keep pace. SON technologies are critical in unifying the different small cell nodes under a single umbrella to simplify the complex process of network optimization and management.


So, are small cells riding the hype cycle? Surely, if you expect volume deployments soon. But taking a long-term view, small cells are a catalyst to radically change the way operators deploy and manage networks as well as the way vendors design base stations. Regardless of the hype cycle, significant advancements are being made today that will define the radio access network of the future. In a way, it's a true revolution in the making.


For more blog posts by Frank Rayal, visit his community profile

A mobile paradox—huge growth and customer demand, yet significant business and market challenges—is causing many companies in the mobile value chain to question where the industry is heading. They’re struggling to understand the key drivers that will shape the industry and what this new world will mean for them in terms of new challenges and opportunities. Most of all, they want to know the winning strategies for achieving success in this new mobile world.


A number of major disruptions, or strategic inflection points, in the mobile industry are radically altering the entire mobile ecosystem as we know it. Some of these disruptions have been slowly building up steam over the last couple of years, although many of these have just started and have yet to really play out. In the white paper, “The New Mobile World Order: Perspectives on the Future of the Mobile industry,” Cisco IBSG identified eight strategic inflection points that are causing—and stand to cause even greater—disruption and uncertainty in the industry:


  • Explosive demand for mobile data—a 13-fold increase between 2012 and 2017
  • The rise of software platforms—from “walled gardens to walled ecosystems”
  • Availability of new, fast mobile networks—LTE everywhere and the rise of Wi-Fi
  • A more active regulator in many countries—spectrum, net neutrality, consumer protection
  • Changing industry structure—consolidation and concentration
  • Growth of network connected devices—Internet of Things
  • Move to cloud delivery models—“everything as a service”
  • The rise of the  OTT threat—largely the battle for video distribution and services


These disruptors are defining the scenarios of how the future mobile industry may look and operate.  While there are several plausible future scenarios, I believe two key scenarios are both more likely to transpire and are the most informative in identifying key business choices and helping develop winning strategies for future success. The Mobile Segments scenario is primarily a continuation of the mobile world today—large players dominate each segment of the value chain, focusing on their core strengths and capabilities and cooperating with their fellow segment giants. Conversely, Mobile Explosion is a world where most things are wireless, interoperable, and cloud-based, increasing competition and further blurring the lines between the value chain segments. 


While it is impossible to predict the future, some  of the current trends and early indicators suggest that the tipping points, or industry drivers, are pushing the industry in the direction of the world of Mobile Explosion. Given this trend, players in the mobile value chain are rightly asking, “What are the solutions to the key challenges and business choices that this new world presents?”  The following are highlights of the paper’s conclusions on the top strategic considerations to ensure future success for players in each of the six key segments of the mobile value chain.


·      Content Providers (e.g., Sony, Disney, New Corp.)—multi-platform, cloud-based lockers, and alternative business and distribution models

·      Mobile Service Providers (e.g., AT&T, T-Mobile, Orange, Verizon Wireless)—Wi-Fi integration, OTT collaboration, Big Data, cost and performance optimization, mobile cloud, and vertical solutions

·      Equipment Providers (e.g., Ericsson, Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco, EMC)—cost reduction, network-data center integration, small cell, and multi-network access

·      Software (e.g., Microsoft, Adobe, Oracle)—mobile enablement, mobile cloud, security, and vertical solutions

·      Internet Services (e.g., Google, eBay, Amazon, OTTs)—SP collaboration, cloud, value-chain integrators, and innovation

·      Devices (e.g., Samsung, Apple, Nokia, RIM)—innovation beyond handsets, cloud extension, connected home, and alternative networks


This white paper further details the key disruptors and tipping points that will redefine mobility to produce two plausible scenarios for the future of the mobile industry. These scenarios and industry segment assessments provide a framework for mobile industry executives to evaluate their future and rationally evaluate strategic options under different conditions.


This is blog 2 of a new blog series Trends in Mobility on the Cisco SP Mobility Community. Read the next blog for this blog series  Trends in Mobility #3: The Mobile Paradox By: Stuart Taylor


About the Author

Stuart Taylor's further industry research, insights and perspectives can be found at his blog The Connected Life

Follow Stuart Taylor on Twitter: @STaylorCisco


More Resources

Trends in Mobility #1: The Next Generation of the Internet is Mobile By: Stuart Taylor

Trends in Mobility #3: The Mobile Paradox By: Stuart Taylor

Trends in Mobility #4: Wi-Fi Technology Delivers New Value to Service Providers By: Stuart Taylor

Trends in Mobility #5: Mobile Business Users Connect with Wi-Fi By: Stuart Taylor

White Paper: The New Mobile World Order - Perspectives on the Future of the Mobile Industry

POV Paper: The Next Generation of the Internet Revolutionizing the Way We Work, Live, Play, and Learn (PDF)

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