MWC: Smart cells, smart cells and backhaul

This year’s Mobile World Congress will be covering all the usual bases, from sexy handset announcements to apps and mobile payments. But one new-ish topic you’ll be hearing more of this year than you have in the past (besides the cloud, I mean) is small cells.

Technically that includes femtocells, which have been showcased at the last several MWC events. But the onset of LTE deployments around the world is putting emphasis on small cells and heterogeneous networks (hetnets), which can include everything from picocells and microcells using licensed spectrum to Wi-Fi hotspots for data offload.
Indeed, Wi-Fi – once the pariah of the mobile sector – is very much part of the small-cell discussion this year. Last week, Alcatel-Lucent previewed its lightRadio Wi-Fi solution, which builds on AlcaLu’s next-gen lightRadio architecture and promises cellcos a way to enable customers to “switch automatically from a cellular service to residential or public Wi-Fi networks and hotspots without having to login, worry about payments schemes, or even be aware of the shift.”
Also last week, Nokia Siemens Networks unveiled Flexi Zone – based on its next-gen Liquid Radio architecture – in which multiple, inter-connected low-power small cells (which can be HSPA, LTE and Wi-Fi) use a common pool of resources managed flexibly by a “zone controller”. Result: local offloading of Internet traffic based on coverage and capacity needs, “saving up to 80% of transport and mobile packet core costs”, says NSN.
Shifting gears a bit, but not to be overlooked: Ubiquisys and Intel will be demonstrating new Intel-powered modules for 3G/LTE/Wi-Fi small cell base stations that can “add massive processing power and storage at the edge of the network”.
The “smart cell” modules – which sport second-generation Intel Core CPUs with data plane hardware accelerators – will serve as the platform for a number of small-cell apps that Ubiquisys is developing with third-party apps developers such as Intrinsyc and Edge Datacoms, including backhaul optimization, video optimization, fast upload and user security.
Intel’s involvement makes for an interesting wild card in the chipset side of the small-cell race, observes Caroline Gabriel of Rethink Wireless:
Intel's network processors have some presence in the RAN but it aims to gain a far bigger position in wireless systems, adding specialized coprocessors to its standard server chips to make them suitable for routers, backbones and even base stations. It is also pushing that approach into Cloud-RAN trials, notably with China Mobile. But as well as those strategies, based around tweaked versions of big processors like Xeon, it also wants a role for its lower power Core and Atom chips.
Meanwhile, several vendors will be touting new backhaul solutions to cope with all these small cells.
NEC, for example, is showcasing its vision for small-cell backhaul this week, the centerpiece of which is 60-GHz radio solutions. NEC says 60-GHz’s availability and high channel re-use characteristics “are ideally suited to deliver high capacity and low latency connections to [the] hundreds of cell sites” that will be deployed quickly in high-density coverage areas such as city squares. Also, 60-GHz backhaul promises better TCO because the spectrum itself is unlicensed (and therefore zero-cost), NEC says.
Meanwhile, RADWIN will be tackling small-cell backhaul from another crucial angle: its non-line-of-sight (NLOS) nature.
Wireless backhaul is often touted as a cost-effective solution for small cells, as it’s not always feasible to connect hundreds of cells downtown with fiber. But that same urban-canyon environment also creates backhaul challenges because LOS is required to generate the kinds of backhaul connectivity LTE will require.
RADWIN says its NLOS solutions – which leverage its experience with sub-6GHz backhaul – can operate in such environments and “ensure robust transmission in dynamic street level conditions where there is high interference and severe multipath.”
All solutions mentioned above will be on display in some form or other this week at the Fira.
See also: this list of on-site demos [PDF] from the Small Cell Forum (formerly known as the Femto Forum – see what they did there?).


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