By: Jesse Cryderman
Several years back, Apple was releasing a new version of the iPod every few months, or so it seemed, and each new version was smaller than the previous. Saturday Night Live produced a skit that lampooned the product announcements by Steve Jobs, starting with the iPod Nano, and ending with the fictional iPod Invisa, which held all the music in the world invisibly. (Ironically, this pre-sages the iCloud.) The comedy in the SNL skit hinged on market confusion surrounding the Nano and the small devices in the product family. But, this article isn't about sexy consumer products, like the diminutive devices from Apple. It’s about the growing confusion around another small device technology that represents the future: small cells.
Small cells are known by several names, including pico cell, micro cell, and femto cell. Today, many people still associate the category with femto cells, which were designed and deployed for small coverage, mainly indoors, but the discussion is much larger. This is partly due to the fact that small cell, as a technology, has only been realized in the past five years and operators are still in the first phases of deployment.
Unlike femto cells, small cells are engineered to provide greater capacity outdoors, can manage considerable bandwidth, and augment macro cell coverage. They are deployed in arrays, can be highly directional, and can deliver capacity in areas unreachable by traditional macro cells, the cellular sites (i.e. towers) that make up the larger wireless network.
Tony Goodman, Manager, Telecom Design Engineering, Sprint, succinctly explained the differences between the different “sizes” of cells. “Picocells and Metrocells are simply single sector base stations that utilize the same core equipment as the macro network. Femtocells utilize customer internet access for backhaul and have separate core equipment connecting them to the network.”
Whether or not their public profile will ever approach the level of iPods, one thing is for sure: small cell technology is here to stay, and a critical component in the heterogeneous networks of the future that will enable CSPs to meet capacity demands.
Small Cells—Why Now?
The discussion of small cell technology has changed because demands have shifted, pushing operators to investigate new strategies for delivering the promises of next-generation mobile experiences.
“In the past 5-years there has been a tremendous surge in smartphones and data usage,” explained Jay Stewart, Director of Ethernet solutions for JDSU’s Communications Test and Measurement business segment. “Another way to add capacity is to take advantage of small cells.” he said.
Inherent in this market situation is a need for speed—not connection speed, but speed to market. It's easy to see from the current marketing campaigns in mature markets that 4G coverage is a top area of competition among major carriers. One problem though, in dense urban areas (which have been some of the first to have their 4G service turned on), is the Swiss cheese effect; many pockets of spotty coverage in an otherwise “covered” area.
As a solution to this dilemma, Amir Makleff, CEO, BridgeWave Communications, underlined another key reason why small cells have entered the discussion today: “Small cells give the operators the flexibility and speed to economically expand and improve 4G coverage in their networks.”