Jarich: 10 things I hate about small cells

Current Analysis Peter Jarich

     Peter Jarich

Okay, I don't really hate small cells.  My parents raised me not to discriminate or be prejudiced based on things like size or capacity. They taught me to love base stations of all shapes and abilities.  Yep, they were open-minded technology visionaries. 

Regardless, reflecting on the small-cell market circa 2013, it struck me that, while the market demand for cellular coverage and capacity enhancements is real, and vendors are doing their best to serve those demands, there's a lot going on in the small-cell space that just doesn't make sense.  Worse yet, there's a lot of hype-induced positioning that is just annoying--if not outright hate-worthy--in terms of what's being ignored, misunderstood or otherwise misrepresented.

1.      Backhaul Bonanza.  If we expect that lots of small cells will get deployed and that they'll be deployed based on specific capacity and coverage requirements (not necessarily based on wired backhaul availability), then it's clear that new forms of wireless backhaul will be needed. There's no shortage of vendors--established or start-up--ready to deliver those solutions. But if we expect that much of the capacity demand operators are planning for will be indoors, then many of these solutions will be moot out of the gate or applicable only to a small segment of the market…suggesting many of those start-ups will fail to actually start up.

2.      Integration Ignorance.  So much of the attention on the small-cell space has focused on the RAN--the small-cell base stations themselves--and not how tough it will be to integrate small cells into a broader macro cell network. Why is this? I don't know. Maybe it's because the RAN is where operators want to focus. Maybe it's where the media wants to focus.  Maybe it's because the RAN will be the biggest component of small cell capex. Sure, it has been a difficult feat to take macro cell base stations and shrink them, but the bigger "miracle" will be to make macro cell networks and small cells play nice together. Not sure why we don't hear more about this.

3.      What's Your Small Cell Story?  Have you noticed how so many new network infrastructure product announcements feel obliged to link themselves to Software Defined Networks (SDN), Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) or the Internet of Things?  Well, small cells have had a major head start on all of them in terms of being a de facto component of any cool new product launch or strategy.  It gets old.  At times, it can seem a little desperate.  Unfortunately, it can also be overwhelming to the point where important developments or solutions that are truly linked to the success of small cell business models simply get lost in the noise.

4.      Selective Cost Containment.  Operators always want to keep network costs in check.  Faced with the prospect of deploying tens of thousands of low-capacity base stations, these concerns are magnified with small cells.  This is why we've heard that technologies like beamforming just don't make sense with small cells; the beamforming benefits of improved coverage or capacity are simply outweighed by the added cost.  Yet, with some vendors talking about pushing intelligence out to the network edge (out to the small cell), apparently cost containment isn't always paramount.

5.      Whither the Femtocell?  Femtocells tend to get lost in the small-cell discussion and are often treated as if they're the crazy uncle nobody wants to acknowledge, or a mistake the market made before it realized what was really important.  That "mistake," however, is still a very real market; femtocells are still shipping.  And while the market never met the lofty expectations of some early analyst estimates, we need to recognize that femtocells did help pave the way for building familiarity with (and technology foundations supporting) small-cell fundamentals.

6.      Whither the Attocell?  What happened to the attocell from Ubiquisys?  The "personal femtocell" was supposedly designed to subvert the need for spectrum licensing thanks to its low power output.  But it never saw the light of day.  Okay, it was probably doomed to failure as long as Ubiquisys was simultaneously courting operator customers.  To its credit, however, it did show off some innovative thinking around what could be done with femtocell and small-cell technologies, and that's never a bad thing.

7.      Multi-tenancy – Not Just for Your Apartment Complex.  Back when femtocells were just a concept (vs. a commercial reality) there was an analyst who predicted the market would never develop because no household would want to limit itself to one operator.  This overlooked the role that femtocells play in terms of customer care.  It does becomes an issue for any small-cell use case involving a public venue that will demand coverage from multiple operators.  Vendors will acknowledge this issue and point to multi-operator core networks as a potential solution.  A solution for the small-cell RAN (remember, the real big CapEx component)?  Well, that's just not mentioned too often.

8.      I'm a Small Cell…Oh No You're Not.  In a recent analysis, my colleague Ed Gubbins recounted the evolving definition of what gets counted as a small cell.  Well, he actually recounted the evolution of how vendors referred to small cells…an evolution that includes things like WiFi APs and DAS-like architectures.  This evolution isn't new.  It was present in the early attempts to segment the market into femtocells vs. metro femtos vs. small cells vs. picocells or microcells.  Some of this matters, particularly where different architectures are implied. Some of this is just marketing and positioning and ignores the fact that where added network capacity and network coverage is the goal, no options should be ignored.

9.      Small-Cell Monetization. WiFi monetization has become a hot topic; cellular traffic offload may be enough to convince some carriers to move onto WiFi, but if you can spell out a way to actually make money from WiFi, the case for deploying it becomes a lot more compelling.  But we don't hear many people talking about small-cell monetization.  Where the coverage of small cells exceeds that of WiFi, this silence might make sense (the accuracy of user data would be limited).  Where operators are looking to earn every penny they can from their network deployments, this disconnect doesn't make sense.

10.   We Know What's Going On.  Really.  Trust Us.  The idea that anyone--operators, vendors, analysts, my mom--knows where the small-cell market is going is just bunk.  It is still too early to figure out the right capacities, right monetization models, etc.  This is why we've seen vendors announce products, then pull back the release dates (NSN) or talk about their small-cell skepticism despite being early to market with solutions (ZTE).  It's why we've seen small-cell backhaul vendors promote every possible architecture and spectrum band combination known to man.  Like SDN and NFV, small cells represent a major change in the way networks are going to be built.  Anyone who thinks they have the market figured out already is just fooling themselves.   

Disclaimer: This wasn't meant to be a rant, or even an exhaustive list of small-cell product and marketing foibles.  (If you're looking for one more, head on over to our newly launched blog at www.networkmatter.com.)  It wasn't meant to denigrate the current state of small-cell solution development or dismiss the very real market demands driving small cell R&D.  As the market evolves from concept to commercial reality, however, it's important to recognize what's not working--and fix it.

Peter Jarich is the VP of Consumer and Infrastructure at Current Analysis. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.

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