AT&T (NYSE:T) has already successfully tested small cell deployments in two U.S. cities--where the devices won rave reviews--in preparation for rolling out more than 40,000 small cells by the end of 2015.
The operator's first trial deployments are in Crystal Lake Park, Mo. and Waukesha, Wis., said John Donovan, senior executive vice president, AT&T technology and network operations, in a blog post.
An outdoor metrocell deployment across an area of poor coverage in Crystal Lake Park, a suburb of St. Louis, enabled a 17 percent increase in mobile traffic on AT&T's network in the deployment area and boosted the outdoor area to nearly 100 percent usable coverage, said Donovan.
The operator also trialed small cells indoors at what Donovan described as a "previously problematic" building in Waukesha, Wis. "The trial decreased the dropped call rate in the building, allowed for a 15 percent increase in mobile traffic on our network where the solution was deployed and also resulted in nearly 100 percent usable coverage," he wrote.
AT&T is building toward a broader small cell rollout later in 2013, said Donovan, without giving specifics.
AT&T's small cell strategy will take a precisely targeted, rather than shotgun, approach to bringing wireless service to areas with problematic coverage.
"We have a tremendous amount of data, so we can see where we have potential performance challenges within the network," Gordon Mansfield, AT&T's executive director for small-cell solutions, said in an interview with Wired. "We'll use that data to help guide where we go target the solutions, creating a strategy based on a prioritized list driven mainly by capacity and performance."
Wi-Fi is also expected to play a leading role in AT&T's coverage densification efforts. At an investor's conference in early January, Donovan stated that AT&T's objective for 2014 is to include Wi-Fi in all of its small cell or in-building systems.
AT&T's massive deployment of small cells over the next two years is part of its expansive Project Velocity IP (or VIP), a multibillion program announced last fall under which AT&T will deploy more than 40,000 small cells, 10,000 new macrocells and 1,000 distributed antenna systems (DAS) throughout its service footprint.
AT&T is not alone in looking at small cells as a coverage solution. In a recent survey of mobile operators conducted by Informa Telecoms & Media, 98 percent of operators contacted believe small cells will be key elements of their network architecture going forward. Further, 55 percent of the poll's respondents were most interested in public access small cell deployments over the next year, while 35 percent were most interested in enterprise rollouts.
ABI Research recently forecast that shipments of outdoor small cells will reach 500,000 units in 2013. Outdoor small cell units will grow at 52.7 percent CAGR and exceed 3.5 million units by 2018. The fastest growing outdoor class of small cells are LTE small cells, which will grow to reach almost 1 million unit shipments in 2018, said the research firm.
However, Infonetics Research has cautioned that outdoor small cell gear faces some hurdles to broad adoption. Aside from cost issues, outdoor small cell gear is still on the large side, and there are problems backhauling in dense urban areas, not to mention municipal regulations regarding the look, size and color of the equipment and who can mount equipment on streetlights, utility poles and building sides, said the firm.
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