Big show in Barcelona focuses on small cells

The run up to MWC has seen several equipment vendors gearing up their small cell strategy as operators move on from plugging coverage gaps to boosting their service offerings with the technology.

Nokia Solutions and Networks has extended its Flexi Zone small cells range to add TD-LTE and extra frequency bands, as well as incorporating wifi and one upping Ericsson in the smallest of small cell stakes with claims to having the “industry’s smallest” indoor small cell with the same capacity and running the same software as a macro base station.

NSN also took a shot at its rival by pointing out that the base station can use a building’s existing shared Ethernet cabling for backhaul, eliminating the cost of new wiring typically needed for DAS and hybrid DAS systems. Ericsson’s small cell backhaul cabling runs a proprietary protocol.

“Although operator interest in small cells is clearly growing, deployments have been limited as operators still have lots of concerns with current small cell offerings. Vendor enhancements, such as those NSN has recently announced, are bringing those portfolios in better alignment with real-world operator requirements,” said Daryl Schoolar, principal analyst, network infrastructure, Ovum.

“These developments will catalyze the wide adoption of small cells to help operators build capacity and coverage by complementing the macro-cellular network with access points that integrate LTE and wifi,” said Randy Cox, head of Small Cells product management at NSN. “Adding Flexi Zone controller can create almost unlimited capacity and up to very large indoor coverage by deploying clusters of access points, which also deliver overall cost savings of up to 50 per cent compared to conventional small cell deployments.”

The company also extended the Flexi Zone architecture, allowing a Flexi Zone controller application to be added to existing macro-cellular base stations to run a large number of nearby small cells both indoors and outdoors within one cluster. Apparently this makes it capable of addressing large and very large indoor environments like airports, university campuses and shopping malls.

Earlier this month, Ericsson unveiled a managed services business model that will see it take ownership of small cell infrastructure on behalf of operators. The Small cell as a Service offering is designed for high capacity environments that also experience peaky demand, such as sport stadiums, allowing operators to ‘fill in’ for capacity needs without densifying the macro network.

The approach involves low-powered, short-range radio access nodes to supplement existing networks and increase capacity in traffic hot spots. Under Ericsson’s ownership, the installation could serve multiple operators when dedicated deployments are impractical.

There was also news from specialist player ip.access, which claimed too many operators still consider small cells an engineering-led solution for plugging network holes rather than a business-led solution for launching new services.

After conducting in-depth interviews with five leading mobile operators on behalf of ip.access, Yankee Group principal analyst, Ken Rehbehn, said it was striking that every operator’s thinking on small cells was dominated by the traditional engineering view of coverage and voice reception.

On Friday ip.access unveiled a “new breed” of small cell, designed for an unnamed operator, around the concept of ‘presence’. The presence cells capture presence data and support mobile phone location authentication to enable a range of overlay solutions including retail analytics, mobile finance and mobile promotions.

CEO Simon Brown said: “Presence Cells are about capturing data and providing supporting services and value. It’s a completely new breed of small cells with unique capabilities to support an exciting but specific vertical segment’s need.”

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