Small cells, network optimization to overshadow 2013 infrastructure discussions



Small cells are poised to dominate discussions among network technology executives during this year's Mobile World Congress trade show, according to a pair of network equipment analysts.

"I think you'll see more small cell stuff this year," said Daryl Schoolar, an Ovum analyst and a FierceWireless contributor. "You can see people starting to deploy them."

Schoolar pointed to the recent small cell tests by AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) as evidence--the carrier said in January it successfully tested small cell deployments in two U.S. cities in preparation for rolling out more than 40,000 small cells by the end of 2015. Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) and Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) have also voiced support for small cells as a way to ease network congestion.

Indeed, research firm ARCchart predicts small cell shipments will grow from just 261,000 last year to fully 5 million in 2017. Separately, Informa Telecoms & Media recently reported that 98 percent of operators believe that small cells will be key elements of their network architecture going forward

Chris Nicoll, an analyst with ACG Research and a FierceWireless contributor, agreed that small cells will generate a significant amount of discussion among players at MWC. He said Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE:ALU) continues to lead the small cell charge, but that other players like Aruba Networks will continue to work to break open the opportunity.

During the event next week, Tellabs announced it will demonstrate its new SDN (software-defined networking) and SON (self-optimizing network) technologies at MWC. Separately, Symmetricom said it will present its small cell synchronization products at MWC. And Ubiquisys said it will team with Texas Instruments and Broadcom to show off multi-mode LTE small cells, as well as what the company is calling its "smart cell: part small cell hotspot, part powerful computing platform," developed in conjunction with Intel.

Other vendors jumping onto the small cell trend at MWC include Telco Systems, Quortus and Siklu.

Finally, Ericsson--the world's largest infrastructure vendor--said at MWC it will demonstrate techniques for avoiding interference between small and macro nodes as users move through a heterogenous network. "Within the combined cell, the system dynamically optimizes the base station and small cell transmission and reception to provide the best possible cell-edge performance and the overall mobile broadband user experience," Ericsson said.

Naturally, small cells are a major topic in the GSMA's Mobile World Congress schedule. On Tuesday at 2 p.m., executives from Arieso, IPWireless, DoCoMo, SK Telecom, Radisys, Alcatel-Lucent and other companies will participate in the "Smaller but Smarter: Making a Success of Small Cell Networks" panel. And the Small Cell Forum has scheduled a press conference on Tuesday morning.

Other network topics to be discussed at MWC will include LTE Advanced, backhaul and antenna technology advancements, Nicoll and Schoolar said.

ACG Research's Nicoll said the issue of network intelligence--whereby vendors help operators better understand the traffic flowing over their networks--will likely find its way into almost any conversation about network technology at next week's show. He explained that vendors and carriers are keen to ensure that they can route network resources where they are needed the most, mainly through the use of traffic policies and other software trickery. For example, Cisco has made three major acquisitions in this space in just the past few months: the $475 million purchase of self-optimizing network startup Intucell in January; the purchase of policy control solutions vendor BroadHop in December; and its $141 million purchase of  network planning, design and traffic management solutions provider Cariden Technologies in November.