Nokia sees small cell momentum in North America, China

Despite the same old challenges related to power and backhaul that small cells historically have had, Nokia Networks (NYSE:NOK) is seeing a lot of momentum for small cells, especially in North America and China.

"I think our portfolio is seen as a very robust portfolio and meets a lot of the market requirements around the world," said Randy Cox, who heads up Nokia's small cells portfolio in Arlington Heights, Ill. "We're actually feeling the momentum from a customer interaction perspective, as well as actual revenue and shipping."

While some challenges still exist in terms of finding the right locations and having the right characteristics of a site -- meaning getting the right backhaul and power where it's needed for a small cell -- "I think the operators, along with us vendors, are trying to work those things out together," he told FierceWirelessTech.

Nokia and Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) are founding members of the recently announced MulteFire Alliance. Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC) and Intel also have joined the group. Issuing a call for others around the globe to join, the alliance says it's an independent organization dedicated to developing and promoting MuLTEfire, an LTE-based technology for small cells operating solely in unlicensed spectrum.

Qualcomm relatively quietly introduced MuLTEfire in June. Separately, Nokia had been working on the technology before hooking up with Qualcomm, said Ashish Dayama, who heads up the marketing for the MulteFire Alliance for Nokia, and they decided to combine efforts.

Unlike LTE-U and Licensed Assisted Access (LAA), MulteFire does not require an "anchor" in licensed spectrum. Because it relies solely upon unlicensed spectrum, MulteFire expands the ecosystem of LTE-based technologies to new entrants, including ISPs, cable companies, venue owners and others. For that very reason, it would seem that the mobile operators that are existing customers of Nokia and Qualcomm wouldn't be too keen on the offering.

But Cox said the anybody can use MulteFire to stimulate additional market opportunities around the world, including existing mobile operators. Not all operators have ubiquitous spectrum holdings everywhere, so if in a given area of a country where an operator does not have spectrum, they could use unlicensed LTE to offer coverage and capacity. "There's a benefit to existing operators today," he said. "They can get coverage and capacity in areas where they are not today because they don't own licenses there." Using LTE in unlicensed spectrum could reduce their roaming expenses.

Another potential customer involves new entrants that want to be neutral hosts, providing service for multiple operators. "I think there's lots of different avenues that this could take," Cox added. Because it's a candidate for indoor coverage, it could work in tandem or replace a DAS system, but that's also true of 3G and LTE small cells today.

Nokia's indoor small cell unit supports 400 users per cell and its outdoor unit supports 840 users; the competition is typically looking at somewhere between 32 and 64 users, respectively, and that's on the high side, so there's a huge gap there. "I don't think you'd have much of an argument to say we have the highest-rated capacity of small cells in the industry," Cox said. "No one meets the number of users that we can, both on an outdoor as well as an indoor perspective."

In its small cell portfolio, "we're starting to see a tremendous amount of momentum in the unlicensed space," he said, including for LAA and LTE with Wi-Fi Aggregation, (LWA), which are coming to fruition in 2016.

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