Remember the early days of Wi-Fi? It's easy to forget that Wi-Fi technology went through a period of very slow growth, where proprietary systems did not interoperate well and many companies exited the market due to poor ROI. The Small Cell market reminds me of the 1980's and 1990's unlicensed market, and there are lessons to be learned from Wi-Fi history in today's ecosystem development.
In 1985, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission released the 2.4 GHz ISM band for unlicensed communications. During the late 1980's NCR, Symbol Technologies, Lucent, and Telxor (among other companies) developed proprietary unlicensed radio systems for enterprise applications, but in general the growth of equipment sales was relatively slow. Applications were focused on enterprise tools such as bar-code scanners and cash registers. The NCR/AT&T/Lucent system developed in 1991 is recognized as a "precursor" of the eventual Wi-Fi protocol.
By 1988, a few of the leaders in this industry recognized a need for standardization to promote market growth, and efforts began to combine multiple companies' efforts in order to standardize the radio interface. Progress was extremely slow, considering the first 802.11 standards were not agreed upon by industry through the IEEE until June 1997.
After 1997, the Wi-Fi market started to heat up. In 1998-1999, the 802.11a and .11b standards were released with a rapid rise in the shipment of consumer and enterprise access points. By 2003, with the release of the 802.11g standard, this technology had "crossed the chasm" between early-adopter status and mainstream technology.
One important element in the development of Wi-Fi was the formation of the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA) in 1999, which eventually become better known as the Wi-Fi Alliance. This organization took a key role in the ecosystem, by certifying multiple manufacturers for clients and Wi-Fi access points, to ensure interoperability between various vendors.
The "Inflection Point" for Wi-Fi took place in 2000-2002, when the shipments of client devices grew rapidly from less than 1 million to 10 million per year. That's 14 years after the early proprietary solutions were developed. Notably, this technology turned the corner during an overall downturn in technology investment, commonly remembered in Silicon Valley as "The Crash." It didn't matter: Wi-Fi took off anyway.
Wi-Fi is an example of a "hockey stick" that finally came through in the end. Will small cells be the same way? The point is that WECA was instrumental in making the hockey stick come to life, because it certified the clients and APs to assure compatibility. Consumers could buy products and have confidence that they would work together.
Small Cell customers don't have that kind of confidence today. Small cells themselves are certified to meet 3GPP standards, but there's still a problem with confidence in terms of how they'll work in the field. Will the small cells cause interference problems on macro base stations? Most mobile operators remain in the slow deployment process of conducting field trials, followed by more field trials and small deployments of 20-100 units at a time. How can the industry break out of this slow-growth trap?
We need some kind of certification program for Small Cell, Wi-Fi, and DAS installers, to give mobile operators some confidence in the way a Small Cell is installed. What if the mobile operators agreed on a "certified process" for installing a small cell? They could include:
--Planning tools that everybody can use. (iBwave could be a good start)
--Backhaul and power provisioning guidelines, agreed by multiple operators;
--RF parameters can be auto-configured, but they need to be checked and possibly tweaked to meet specific standards, set by the operators;
--Testing (either walking or driving) should follow a prescribed process to ensure that specific KPIs are met, in the small cell and in the macro layer.
Alcatel-Lucent has already taken a big step down this path with their Metro Cell Express Site Certification Program. ALU has a group of certified system integrators that can take charge in the field, and follow ALU's guidelines. System integrators such as Crown Castle, EdgeConneX, Zayo, and Knight Enterprises participate in this program, which means that thousands of local technicians in Europe and the USA are trained on a specific process.
The Small Cell Forum and NGMN have also contributed good work. The SCF/ETSI Plugfests and guidelines on resolution of X2 interoperability issues are important steps. NGMN has published "Recommended practices for multi-vendor SON deployment", and each group continues to contribute specific public solutions to key interoperability issues.
With a lot of the technical work done, now we are looking for the hockey stick to really take off. Technical issues should fade to the background, and an industry-wide certification process would be useful to encapsulate all of the interoperability work in one well-known "seal of approval." Instead of certification criteria that are created by a vendor, we need criteria that are driven by a group of mobile operators or possibly by the Small Cell Forum.
It's important for the operators to somehow force Ericsson, Huawei, and NSN to participate in the process. These companies were notably absent from the June 2014 Plugfest. Without them, the operators are forced to continue the long, expensive process of field trials to discover interoperability issues. Do we really want to do our interoperability testing on live networks?
It may be naïve to think that a single industry-wide installation process can be common between multiple vendors, in widely different mobile networks. There certainly will be practical issues in writing a document, and each macro network environment will have different dynamics. My point is that the biggest stumbling block for small cells today is NOT backhaul or site acquisition. Instead, the biggest problem impacting growth in small cells is the lack of confidence by mobile operators that they can deploy millions of units without impacting their macro networks.
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.