Saleem Al Balooshi, EVP network development and operations at du, talks about the benefits of using small cells
The latest report by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu has revealed that smartphone upgrades were expected to surpass 70-100 million units for the first time in 2015, with the majority of these taking place in the GCC Region. This exponential increase in the number of smartphones used by GCC consumers directly leads to a significant increase in mobile broadband data usage.
One of the pioneering methods of coping with this exponential data increase is through the roll out of small cells. Small cells enable mobile data offloading from 3G and LTE networks, to meet capacity demands. Incremental capacity increases with small cells, which, according to a report by Senza Fili Consulting, are typically at a ratio of 15 small cells to a macro cell. Hence, the shipments of small cells in the MEA region has jumped to more than 280 thousands units in 2014, according to the latest statistics by the Small Cells Forum.
Furthermore, when deployed small cells are physically closer to the end-users, this leads to improved analytics of user behaviour thus enabling operators to better cater to the needs of their subscribers. The locations where we’ve deployed small cells, in an outdoor environment, have experienced an increase in data traffic by more than 40%. This is referred to as the ‘hidden traffic’, which is generated by users who were not able to achieve high throughputs before the deployment of small cells, and are now able to enjoy the MBB services after the necessary capacity has been provided.
At the moment, the need for additional capacity is mainly focused on 3G technology as operators are increasingly experiencing great demands in very specific locations. Handset penetration in the region is much higher for 3G than it is for LTE; hence, small cells are mainly utilised for 3G capacity enhancement purposes (either indoor or outdoor) where there is a need to provide much needed additional capacity using a cost effective method.
Small cells help to cope with the excess data, but currently there are still some challenges that prevent their mass rollout in the region. These include: site acquisition, small cell backhaul and interaction with the macro layer.
The best model for site acquisition (the rights to install in certain location) is to do the so called ‘crowd sourcing’ (bulk site acquisition). Here, the operator can strike a deal with public service providers such as the Road and Transportation Authority to acquire the rights to install small cells in public locations such as lamp posts, bus stations, traffic lights and the like.
Backhaul is probably one of the biggest challenges to the roll out of small cells, especially when fibre is not available, as the backhaul solution has to have a fairly small footprint (in terms of size), in order to match the size of the small cell itself.
Finally, small cells have to become a seamless part of the network without causing any additional interference to the macro layer. An additional way of providing data off-loading capabilities is through a WiFi add-on, this will enable operators to cater to any additional traffic (beyond the 3G and LTE capacity) to be offloaded to the WiFi network layer. This is especially important given the exponential growth in the data traffic trends.
The work towards securing timely solutions to these restrictions is being performed, in order to ensure the deployment of small cells in the region. Looking to the future of data, small cells form the key component of 5G mobile technologies. Specifically, 5G will be a combination of small cells, plus a new radio access technology based on ‘massive MIMO’ or ‘coordinate MIMO’, plus centralised BBU (Cloud BBU). This is what is being proposed and heavily discussed at the standards bodies right now.
Small cells are the future. It is already clear that the additional usage of macro sites as a business model is certainly not sustainable in the long term. Small cells are the only viable option as a means of delivering the required capacity at the highest possible speeds and through its close positioning to the end-user.