Small cells eclipse interest in macrocell offerings - Mobile World Congress 2012 Scorecard

Whose profile is rising? Small cells and patent portfolios

Oh what a difference a year makes.  At the 2011 Mobile World Congress conference there was surprisingly little buzz about femtocells. Fast-forward to 2012 and nearly every vendor on the show floor at the Mobile World Congress was touting the benefits of small cell deployments. "Small cells" has quickly become the latest industry buzzword to encapsulate all types of microcell technologies including femtocells, picocells and metrocells. 

The Femto Forum picked up on this trend and renamed itself the Small Cell Forum last month. The group, which commissioned some research from analyst firm Informa, revealed stats showing that small cells will outnumber macrocells by year-end, growing from 3.2 million deployed in 2012 to 59 million deployed by 2016.

The forum also noted that there are 53 operators committed to deploying small cells in the first quarter of this year. In addition, 60 percent of operators have said that they believe small cells will be more important than macrocells in their LTE networks.

Vendors looking to exploit that trend were talking up their small cell products and deployments at the trade conference.

Nokia Siemens Networks, which lost out on the initial round of LTE radio access supply contracts from the top three U.S. operators, is banking on small cell deployments as a way to regain some ground in North America.

In addition, Ericsson, a long-time critic of femtocells, did an about-face on the technology when CEO Hans Vestberg showed off two small cell products during a media briefing at the trade show.

In an interview with FierceWireless, Arun Bhikshesvaran, Ericsson's chief marketing officer, said that the company believes that small cells are the right product for the right environment but noted that femtocells often have interference issues. The answer, Bhikshesvaran said, is to deploy low-power cells that can be quickly deployed to handle coverage issues.

Operators also jumped on the small cell bandwagon. At a Cisco press event AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) said that it plans to test small cells in its network later this year and the carrier also said it counts "several hundred thousand" Cisco femtocells in its network.

Patent portfolios were another hot topic among vendors, with several companies putting price-tags on their patents and indicating their interest in monetizing those patents.

Ericsson's Vestberg noted that the company has 30,000 patents and plans to monetize those patents in the future.  Likewise LG said it is No. 1 in LTE patents, which are valued at $7.9 billion. And Broadcom CEO Scott McGregor said his company plans to make money off its patent portfolio in the future, noting that Broadcom's patent portfolio has been ranked as the eighth largest among all technology companies, and is No. 2 among semiconductor companies. 

Whose profile is falling?  Equipment for the macro network

Mobile World Congress has traditionally been a place where the network infrastructure makers showcased their latest gear for all the operators to check out. In the recent past, LTE base stations were the focus of most vendor discussions, along with lots of talk about LTE and LTE Advanced trials and speed tests.

Surprisingly, we heard little of that at last week's confab.  Infrastructure vendors were so focused on small cell technologies that there was little discussion of macrocells. But perhaps this is just part of the bigger trend--that infrastructure vendors today must focus less on developing and deploying base stations and hardware and more on helping their operator customers develop services to grow their businesses.

Alcatel-Lucent (NASDAQ:ALU) did try to generate some buzz about network gear by having a representative from Bell Labs at their media event talk about the company's lightRadio solution, which it introduced at the 2011 Mobile World Congress show. LightRadio breaks down a base station into its component elements and then distributes them into both the antenna and throughout a cloud-like network. But the Bell Labs discussion didn't seem to offer much new information beyond what Alcatel Lucent had already revealed at the 2011 show.

Small cells eclipse interest in macrocell offerings - Mobile World Congress 2012 Scorecard