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Small Cells – The Answer to Improving Coverage and Service for Networks

LTE network rollouts are gaining traction worldwide. In the United States, Verizon Wireless recently celebrated the three year anniversary of its network launch. According to a recent study by the GSMA, the United States currently accounts for almost half (46 per cent) of global LTE connections; the United States, South Korea and Japan combined account for 80 per cent of the LTE total today. However, Asia is expected to account for almost half (47 per cent) of all LTE connections by 2017, as LTE networks are rolled out in major markets such as China and India. These advanced networks, coupled with improved capabilities of the end user devices and software applications targeted for mobility are experiencing huge increases in demand among both consumers and enterprises alike. Recently the GSMA reported that in developed countries the LTE experience has increased user consumption to 1.5GB of data per month on average2– almost twice the average amount consumed by non-LTE users.

Indeed network operators are now looking to LTE-A (R10) to keep up with the constant demands of speed, coverage and low latency. One area that is quickly becoming popularized to meet the consumer demand for network ubiquity is Small Cells. As the name implies, Small Cells are smaller than a traditional macro cell site. Small Cells are low power wireless access points that operate in licensed spectrum and are operator managed. Small cells may take the form of Wi-Fi, 3G, LTE or multi-mode. The main purpose of small cells is to provide improved cellular coverage, capacity and applications for homes, enterprises and public spaces.

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Types of small cells include femtocells, picocells, and microcells, all of which can be deployed in a number of applications and environments. Since they are typically 20 – 30% of the cost of a macro cell, they are already becoming popular in the United States. AT&T announced last year the intention of deploying 40,000 small cells to increase capacity and coverage of its nationwide network. Numerous industry analysts have predicted a healthy market for small cells over the next five years.

But what challenges can the mobile network expect in implementing this new technology? With deployments slated in the tens of thousands for large operators, it is immediately evident that project management procedures, network operation monitoring and optimization services must scale by an order of several magnitudes. Real estate is also a critical concern, as access to street level mounting locations is highly regulated and placement of the small cells to reach user hot spots. Perhaps the biggest challenge of all for small cells is backhaul. The challenge is to be able to economically provide backhaul to the small cell since the availability of choices can be limited depending on the venue location.

All in all, small cells are proving to be the networks answer to improving coverage and service in the era of LTE. This is proven already in developed countries as a definite trend, and will soon make its way to Asia, India and other developing markets.

Melody Yuhn

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