EE has small cells on horizon, but LTE still key in near term

EE is preparing to launch small cells in the next two years, but won't let the rollout distract it from expanding its LTE network, the UK operator's principal network architect told FierceWireless:Europe this week.

Andy Sutton said EE is currently developing small cells and will deploy them as part of a heterogeneous network (hetnet). However, in the near term the company's key focus is on growing its LTE network coverage, and extending availability of services in the 2600 MHz band.

"We're going to be introducing heterogeneous networks, and we'll be putting public access small cells into the network where appropriate," Sutton said in an interview on the sidelines of the Transport Networks for Mobile Operators trade conference, which took place in London on May 13 and 14.

Sutton said EE's spectrum strategy and focus on super macros to improve LTE coverage mean "we don't need small cells today. So we're working on trials, working on development today."

EE will begin to deploy small cells "next year and into 2016," Sutton said, adding that "volumes will grow fairly quickly," once rollout starts.

While recognising the potential for small cells to boost coverage, Sutton said the approach is still not as effective as growing the macro network.

"[T]he reality is you can't replicate the coverage you can get from a macro cell with small cells…a macro cell is going to cover a wide area. It's going to give you coverage in back alleys, it's going to give you coverage in a whole bunch of places where [if] you start bringing small cells down, you're not going to get that same level of coverage," Sutton explained.

However, Sutton noted small cells and public access pico cells complement macro networks in terms of delivering additional capacity, and said that link will get stronger as EE researches technology beyond LTE.

"We're looking at opportunities maybe to focus a lot of the control plane in the macro cell, and then really focus the user plane on the small cell layer in the urban areas where we've got high traffic density, as well as talking about using millimetre wave and capacities that are going to be in excess of 1 GB to 10 GB and beyond," Sutton said.

The 2600 MHz network EE is currently rolling out in London gives the company carrier aggregation capabilities, when combined with its existing 1800 MHz frequencies, Sutton said. "We will be introducing higher levels of carrier aggregation, so third component carriers, so we'll be having peak data rates over 400 Mbps on the network in the future, and that will continue to evolve, of course, over time."

Sutton said EE is also investing heavily in backhaul, and is targeting "1 Gbps to all of our macro base stations, and then scaling that as appropriate for the topology and the configuration and evolution of that super-macro cell."

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