Seeing sense in small cell solutions

Saleem Al Blooshi, chief infrastructure officer, du discusses the benefits of utilising small cell solutions.
DU, Small cell, 5G, DAS, Hetnets, LTE, Network operator

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Do you see an increase in popularity of small cell solutions?

To start with, we have to distinguish between two distinct uses of small cells - indoor deployment and outdoor deployment.  Furthermore, there are two reasons why telecom operators may introduce small cells: To enhance coverage and decrease black-out spots in a cost effective way, or as a means of cost effective capacity improvement in the exact locations where capacity is needed. These are both dependent upon the status of the operator, in terms of their traffic profile and growth, coverage, mobile penetration, the technologies deployed or in the process of being deployed and, last but not least, the level of handset penetration on 2G, 3G and LTE technologies.

In terms of popularity, the deployment of small cells for indoor purposes has indeed increased and proliferated significantly.

On the other hand, outdoor deployment has been less popular in some cases due to the difficulties faced by telecom operators in acquiring suitable location for these deployments in a cost-effective way.

How do you see the relevance of small cell solutions in the light of transition to 5G and large-scale IoT?

Globally, the initial deployment of 5G will be on C-Band (3.4-3.8GHz). This will be followed by the next phase of 5G deployment over the so called mmWave (24GHz and beyond).

For this to happen, the indoor deployment of small cells will certainly be needed. However, initially, we do not foresee much outdoor deployment over the C-Band.

On the contrary, in the next phase of 5G deployment over mmWave, small cells will play the centre-stage for both indoor and outdoor deployment. This is simply due to very high frequency which leads to very small inter-site distance which makes small cells practically the only solution to deploy mmWave-based 5G.

What’s the main difference between DAS and small cells?

DAS (Distributed Antenna System) is a point-to-multipoint solution in which the DAS headend shares and receives signals with all remote nodes simultaneously within a particular sector. By simulcasting radio channels throughout the building, it creates a single large cell, as opposed to the network of individual cells typical of the various small cell solutions.

One of the biggest differences between DAS and Small Cells is the ability to support multiple carriers. DAS systems can be shared by multiple operators, each connecting their own base stations to the shared RF distribution system.

As a result, DAS allows carriers and venue owners to take advantage of neutral host opportunities in which the capital expenditure can be shared by all participants, making it more affordable in this case.

What’s the biggest advantage that you see from small cell solutions?

There are two reasons why telecom operators may introduce small cells: to enhance coverage and decrease black out spots in a cost effective way, or as a means of cost effective capacity improvement in the exact location where the capacity is needed. These are both dependent upon the status of the operator, in terms of their traffic profile and growth, coverage, mobile penetration, the technologies deployed or in the process of being deployed and, last but not least, the level of handset penetration on 2G, 3G and LTE technologies.

What’s your opinion on HetNets?

The concept of the Heterogeneous Network or HetNet has arisen out of the need for telecom operators to be able to operate networks consisting of a variety of radio access technologies, formats of cells and many other aspects, and combining them to operate in a seamless fashion.

So, applying this definition strictly on the different cellular technologies (LTE, 3G & 2G), we find that different types of user will need to use the network in different places and for different applications. In any LTE heterogeneous network it is necessary to accommodate other radio access technologies including HSPA, UMTS and even EDGE and GPRS.

All of the above is indeed happening and in a well-designed radio network, the interoperability (a.k.a. mobility strategy) between these different radio technologies should all work towards the best user experience possible.

On another note, I have to say that the incorporation of other non-3GPP Technologies (for example Wifi) under the umbrella of a HetNet has not been widely deployed or used.

Similarly, the concept of HetNet has been very limited to being used per radio infrastructure vendor (i.e. Inter-Vendor HetNet has not been widely deployed as well).

How can small cells contribute to meeting the growing data demand and cost reduction?

From the network operator perspective, deploying small cells can typically result in a significant increase in capacity with a typical gain of six times more than traditional methods.

Small cells offer cost effective capacity and coverage, with better cost per bit, and deliver improved quality of experience for hotspots in both indoor and outdoor locations.

They have the ability to allow network operators to deliver capacity and coverage directly and quickly, with the result of improved user behaviour due to the end-user proximity.

How do you visualise small cell solutions in your business? Are you working with several vendors in this space?

In terms of small cells rollout, at du, we have been successfully deploying them for both indoor and outdoor coverage successfully during the last several years.

In most of our deployments, we use small cells as a means of cost-effective capacity improvement in the exact location where the capacity is needed. Our successful deployment have helped us significantly improve our customer experience – a key focus area for us, in malls, airports and other major indoor locations as well as a range of outdoor deployments, including advertisement billboards along major roads and highways.

What are the main challenges on the path of leveraging maximum potential of small cell solutions?

The smaller cell radius requires stations to be closer to the users, right down to street level.

This can mean installations on building fronts, street light or traffic poles, and so on.

The greatest challenge is the hanging rights considering the form factor requirements, such as appearance, size and weatherproofing. Outdoor small cell deployments must not create injuries to public, must not be prone to malicious physical attacks or unauthorised access to the IP network, and they must be able to secure power.

Furthermore, Backhaul is also one of the biggest challenges to the rollout 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.

Is it true that small cells simply aren't the network panacea that some once believed they would be?

No one can say for sure that small cells are the ideal solution for everything.

Small cells not only compliment, but also form an integral part of the overall solution to cater to coverage and capacity requirements in a cost effective way.

Small Cells will continue to be deployed and we foresee that their rollout will significantly increase during the second phase of 5G deployments over the mmWave Band.

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