Madden: Small cells are here

joe madden

     Joe Madden

Are you getting tired of waiting for the small cell "hockey stick"? Over the past seven years, several companies have fizzled because they predicted more rapid adoption for femtocells or other small-cell variations. Some suppliers got tired of waiting and left the market.

We predicted in 2011 that the small cell market would start in 2015, with bigger growth in 2016. That prediction has been right on so far, as the small cell market reached $1B in 2015.

We expect to hear some public announcements soon that will blow your socks off. We're not sure whether the announcements will come out next week at MWC, or in another month. Either way, big news is about to break in the small cell world…with a major impact on shipments this year.

The best part about this growth is that it's multi-dimensional. That means that it's driven by more than one force, and it's going in more than one direction.

For mobile operators, traffic density is driving the small cell trend. In 2015, carrier deployments of small cells grew 140 percent, including both indoor and outdoor units. That growth rate will be even bigger in 2016. As the market builds momentum, we expect that some of the variations in design will be smoothed out. Split-baseband architectures and "virtualization" of the small cell will settle into a few natural product categories. It's like Darwin's theory of evolution. After the winter, we see new critters emerge with the best traits to compete out there.

For enterprises, the mobile industry is realigning itself with better solutions. The old way:  an enterprise had to beg the mobile operator to send its technicians over, assess a coverage problem in the building, and invest some time and money to fix it. Most enterprises could not get the attention of the mobile operators, so their problems were never fixed. The new way: Enterprises will simply buy a small cell that's pre-approved by the operator. To take it one step farther, some solutions are getting approved by multiple operators so that the enterprise can implement improved service for two or more carriers.

The small cell fuse has been lit, and the rocket is taking off. Fasten your seat belt.

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, acquisitions, and mergers during his 24 years in mobile communications.