Gordon Mansfield, executive director of small cell solutions & RAN delivery at AT&T Mobility, was appointed chairman of the Small Cell Forum last month.
Eurocomms.com: What are the main challenges facing operators rolling out small cells in Europe?
Gordon Mansfield: The classic small cell challenges that have troubled operators are interference, cost and network integration – all three of these have been largely resolved over the past three years thereby making widespread deployments possible.
In the public access space, the interference challenges are certainly more complex but the acquired know-how means these have been largely mitigated, illustrated by the first deployments in the space.
The key challenges for the industry as we move forward with public access small cells are in backhaul, zoning and network management.
What can be done to overcome these challenges?
In many cases, backhaul won’t pose a challenge for operators as busy metropolitan areas such as train stations and shopping centres frequently have a plentiful supply of fibre.
Fixed operators like Virgin Media in the UK are looking to simplify this for mobile operators using a hosted small cell model and have recently trialled LTE small cells.
In some cases where small cells need to be mounted in the street – on lamp posts, for example – the challenge is greater but there are vast numbers of wireless backhaul firms vying for this space with extremely smart solutions.
The issues surrounding zoning are similar to backhaul.
In many cases, public access small cells can be installed indoors where negotiating installations is less difficult than outdoors on lamp posts where access, power and permission can be extremely challenging.
In this latter case the industry is going to need to work with central and local government to simplify this process.
Fortunately, governments around the world are increasingly keen to facilitate broadband access, so we all have the same goal!
The final key challenge is network management.
Femtocell deployments ramped up once the industry agreed a common technology standard (i.e. Iuh).
The industry needs to ensure that public access small cells follow a similarly open approach – this will be a key focus for the Small Cell Forum.
As deployments scale and HetNet capabilities emerge, the SON capabilities inherent to all small cells will need to evolve to ensure the increasingly complex radio networks comprising public Wi-Fi, femtocells, picocells, metrocells, microcells and indeed macrocells ‘play nice’ with one another.
When will small cells go mass market and what will this mean for the industry?
It is easy to forget the degree to which small cells are already an everyday reality for millions of people.
Nine of the top 10 operators (by revenue) have deployed femtocells and within the next six months they’ll outnumber all macrocells globally.
According to Informa, almost 90% of all base stations will be small cells by 2016 – the overwhelming majority of which will be femtocells.
Europe has not been as quick to roll out small cells as North America and Asia but it is catching up fast.
The UK and France recently became the first markets where all operators have deployed femtocells.
Simply put, we’re seeing the most rapid and fundamental change to the radio network in the history of mobile.
This won’t escape end users, who are already seeing small cells in their homes and will increasingly see them where they work and in their neighbourhood.
A recent report by Infonetics Research suggests there are too many vendors in the small cell space – do you agree?
No. Lots of vendors means lots of competition – I think that is exactly what this market needs.
At this stage nobody knows exactly how big the small cell market will get and therefore how many vendors can be accommodated.
What we do know is that operators regard them as extremely important and it is impossible to see how future mobile networks can exist without them.
This means that the small cell market is going to explode over the next few years, so it’s a great area for vendors to be focusing on.
What does the long-term future hold for small cells?
The fact that there is a finite amount of spectrum means that the only way to increase capacity is to build smaller cells. That’s just physics. Small cells are here for the long term.
Over the next few years we’ll start to get an insight into how extensive deployments will be.
It’s possible that beyond homes and businesses they may simply be used as a capacity boost in busy hotspots.
However, they could also be used in the suburbs to improve the user experience and could therefore extend into rural areas too.
If this latter scenario also takes place then the small cell market will be vastly larger.
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