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Small cells - the capacity management trend

The explosion in mobile data is transforming the way mobile network operators manage spectrum usage, traffic balancing, coverage, and network capacity issues.  Operators are turning to inexpensive, flexible small cell technologies to extend the capabilities of their existing macro cells.  Small cells (outdoor femtocells, metrocells, and picocells) offer an innovative approach to solving network capacity and efficiency challenges.  In addition, small cells are a critical part of LTE networks as it provides performance and capacity enhancements.

Small cell technology has evolved considerably from its beginnings with residential femtocells. Each week announcements are released about operators around the world deploying small cell (LTE) base stations with carrier grade capabilities for large multi-user small cells. SK Telecom and Korea Telecom lead the pack with plans announced to deploy LTE small cells in December 2012.  Most carriers globally are leveraging small cell technologies to provision coverage in-building and dense outdoor spaces which complement the traditional macrocells.

As the wireless backhaul technologies continue to evolve to include Wi-Fi, small cells and traditional base stations, the short term implications of each technology is clear. Yes, small cells can buy an operator plenty of additional time, but this ad-hoc approach is only feasible on a limited scale. Typically, adding more spectrum is more efficient than using small cells.  While Wi-Fi is very effective in a controlled RF environment, it is not as effective in the macro environment due to its security challenges, unlicensed spectrum, and the lack of propagation which is a recipe for a poor subscriber experience.  Yet the traditional base stations are not able to manage the new data traffic demands alone.  ABI expects fiber backhaul to play a vital role in small cell evolution as well. However, the majority of mobile network operators will connect to small cells using wireless backhaul.

There are a variety of innovative solutions available to manage the network capacity and technology integration challenges.  Leading network equipment providers are developing integrated base stations to support UMTS, LTE and LTE- Advanced.  Likewise, semiconductor chip designers are integrating functions of multiple base stations into a single processor, and antenna manufacturers are combining different frequency standards onto a single antenna.  Mobile network management solution companies (such as Celcite) offer innovative tools that offset CAPEX/OPEX spending and support mobile network operators in delivering quality network services while optimally balancing the network’s traffic load. 

Wireless backhaul technologies can help minimize the capacity challenges but there may be other solutions to consider.  Which is the best solution to manage growing network capacity issues? Given the benefit that small cells offer the mobile user and its impact on the mobile network revolution, a collaborative approach will yield the best results for mobile network operators and their subscribers. One thing is certain, wireless technology integration is paramount and inevitable.