If you're reading this, then you work in the most disrupted market in the history of the world. The mobile telecom market contends with multiple technologies, each disrupting the other simultaneously. Small Cells? Yes. Wi-Fi? Yes. DAS? Yes. Cloud RAN? Yes.
All of these ideas have merit, and the first three can be found today in a network near you. But this glorious heterogeneity won't last forever. In the longer term, simpler solutions will emerge which incorporate the best elements of each architecture. When simple, flexible solutions hit the right cost point, then all of the turbulence in the industry will smooth out again.
One step in this long-term process is now becoming clear: In-building mobile solutions are migrating from DAS to IP-based networks with a controller that can "route" the traffic and perform the features of LTE-Advanced. DAS meets Cloud RAN.
Several companies have shown their take on this concept:
- Ericsson's Radio Dot uses a Remote Radio Head to support RF traffic distributed to small antennas through a building. This approach provides macro network features and good interoperability with the outdoor network for a single operator.
- Huawei has a similar product (LampSite) which it has deployed in France, Norway, Qatar, and China with impressive performance. In Huawei's case, there is a roadmap toward multi-band, multi-operator support and nice integration of Wi-Fi.
- Commscope and Axell are examples of DAS companies that have developed "dynamic" DAS systems which essentially route radio traffic as IP packets. This approach provides new flexilbity in the ability to assign capacity dynamically, as people move around inside a building or even between different buildings. These companies are also adding Wi-Fi and Ethernet transport. Because these solutions come out of the DAS ecosystem, they naturally are designed for multi-operator use.
- Spidercloud, Airvana, and others from the small cell world are developing networks that look similar to the solutions from the DAS crowd....flexible, dynamic solutions which place baseband processing in a central closet, and distribute the radio signals in a mesh which can be dynamically adapted throughout the building. Airvana, in particular, is moving toward a multi-operator solution with multiple baseband cards in the central controller.
For me, it's remarkable that all of these players are converging on something that looks pretty similar: All of these roadmaps end up with an inexpensive system to be shared by three or four mobile operators. All of them will eventually include Wi-Fi and Ethernet traffic. All of them lead to radio processing features that sound a lot like LTE-Advanced: Combined cells, multi-user MIMO, and joint processing which basically offer improved performance and capacity. In fact, many of these players refer to their solutions as a miniaturized form of CRAN.
Does the entire world need to converge onto one solution? No, of course not. The outdoor network will continue to focus on mobility and the top OEMs will have an advantage there, some using CRAN solutions that look nothing like DAS. Indoors, some buildings don't need the multi-operator solution, or don't need high density. However, the indoor market needs economy of scale in a solution, and most customerswant a dynamic, flexible, multi-operator solution. We broke the in-building enterprise market into ten vertical segments, and analyzed each one separately. In the end, we estimate that 75-80% of the commercial buildings out there have a strong preference for multi-operator solutions.
Even more importantly, enterprises are now willing to pay for the right solution. That's right: The mobile operators don't have to pay for everything....the enterprise will be happy to fund the entire project if they can get what they want.
We calculated that enterprises would be willing to spend $90 billion, if the right multi-operator solution was available to them at the right price. I cannot emphasize this enough: Enterprises are willing to spend this money now, but nobody is showing up at their door with the right product and with all of the mobile operators lined up to support it.
It's a big prize, and it won't be easy to capture. First of all, each vertical market has some aggressive price points that must be met. Secondly, the salesman that knocks on the door must have a solution which is certified by the mobile telco companies, as femtocells are today. Imagine an in-building solution which includes four small-cell baseband processor cards in the central controller, along with distributed, dynamic RF capacity. That's a winner.
Joe Madden is Principal Analyst at Mobile Experts LLC. Mobile Experts is a network of market and technology experts that provide market analysis on the mobile infrastructure and mobile handset markets. He provides market forecasts for handset, DAS, small cell, and base station markets, with in-depth research down to the nitty gritty details of frequency bands and power levels. Mr. Madden graduated, cum laude, from UCLA in 1989 and is a Silicon Valley veteran. He has survived IPOs, LBOs, divestitures, acquistions, and mergers during his 24 years in mobile communications.