Small CellWireless network operator deployments of small cells will bring major changes to the way the operators architect their networks, said Iain Gillott, president of wireless research firm iGR this week. Gillott made his comments at Technology Futures Inc.’s Communications Technology and Asset Valuation Conference in Austin, Texas.

In addition to triggering the deployment of fiber backhaul to small cell sites, iGR believes small cells needed to satisfy mobile broadband demand will drive wireless operators to establish local data centers that will resemble traditional Class 5 central offices – an ironic twist for an industry that has been consolidating and decommissioning COs.

Small Cell Plans
“Small cells address hot spots and ‘not spots,’” Gillott told conference attendees.

While traditional macrocell networks were designed for mobile users passing through coverage areas, mobile data often is consumed while users remain in specific locations for an extended period of time, Gillott explained. He noted, for example, that coffee shops become 4G hotspots at busy times as customers find on-site Wi-Fi to be overloaded and switch to 4G.

“Not spots,” Gillott explained, are cellular dead zones such as areas between tall buildings. Small cells can address hot spots and “not spots” by boosting network capacity in a small area. A “not spot,” for example, might be served by installing a small cell at street-level.

iGR’s LTE traffic forecast shows a five-fold increase between 2014 and 2019, which means small cells will need substantial backhaul capacity, Gillott said.

“A small cell needs at least 100 Mbps,” commented Gillott.

While some operators initially are deploying microwave for small cell backhaul, Gillott believes operators will replace the microwave equipment with fiber as soon as they can get fiber to the site.

A CO of Sorts
Something else that will occur in initial small cell deployments but later will change is the co-location of the baseband equipment supporting each small cell at the small cell site, Gillott predicts.

After initial deployments, network operators will use a more centralized approach, which will minimize the amount of baseband equipment required and eliminate the need for technicians to visit individual sites to service the equipment, he said. According to Gillott, operators are looking at a ratio of seven baseband devices per 10 small cells.

The place where the baseband equipment will be housed could look something like a traditional central office, said Gillott, who expects a major wireless operator to have about 1,000 such locations nationwide, including several such locations in each metro area.

These CO-like locations also could serve another important function – housing content servers for offerings such as You Tube and Netflix, thereby minimizing latency and improving the viewer’s experience.

Carriers already use this approach to some extent, but not at such a granular level. “They haven’t moved yet because of backhaul quality,” observed Gillott.

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