Rumor mill: AT&T gears up to order 100,000 small cells

AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) is apparently planning a dramatic follow-through on the plans it disclosed earlier this year to deploy small cells in its network, with the operator reportedly looking to acquire 100,000 diminutive base stations.

A Light Reading article, citing unnamed sources, indicated AT&T has issued requests for information (RFIs) to mobile infrastructure suppliers as it seeks to deploy 100,000 small cells.

"We don't comment on RFIs," an AT&T spokesman told FierceBroadbandWireless.

However, AT&T has repeatedly signaled its intent to add small cells to its network topology, with executives atboth at the Mobile World Congress in February and CTIA Wireless 2012 event in May saying that the operator would begin equipment trials later this year. The small cells would become part of AT&T's new heterogeneous networks, or HetNets, which can add density to a carrier's macro network layer via low-power nodes.

Kris Rinne, senior vice president of network technologies at AT&T Labs, said during her keynote speech at FierceWireless' The Path to 4G event, held in conjunction with the CTIA convention, that AT&T will begin deploying small cells in earnest later this year based on the needs of high-density areas.

According to Light Reading, AT&T would like the small cells it seeks to support 3G, LTE and Wi-Fi. In her speech last month, Rinne said AT&T would like to deploy multimode small cells that encompass LTE, HSPA+, WCDMA and Wi-Fi, but she acknowledged afterward to FierceBroadbandWireless that initially the operator will probably need to deploy most of the components individually.

Rinne said AT&T has "spent a lot of time with our vendors working on a strategy for deployment," but she did not identify the specific vendors.

The operator has likely consulted with Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE:ALU) and Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC), which are AT&T's current radio access network equipment suppliers. Ericsson has said 2012 is its year for targeted pushes into both the small cell and Wi-Fi equipment arenas. The vendor, which recently joined the board of the Small Cell Forum (formerly the Femto Forum), offers picocells and microcells in its portfolio but no femtocells. Ericsson also entered the Wi-Fi infrastructure business by acquiring BelAir Networks in April.

Cisco Systems could also be a contender to supply small cells to AT&T. In February, Rinne said the operator had deployed "several hundred thousand" Cisco-supplied femtocells, which AT&T began offering in April 2010.

Another U.S. operator adopting an aggressive HetNet strategy is Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S). Iyad Tarazi, Sprint's vice president of network development, said at the CTIA show that the operator will start launching picocells during the fourth quarter of this year in public venues such as stadiums and hospitals and will also replace its distributed antenna systems (DAS) with picocells, which Sprint intends to launch outdoors in 2013 and 2014.

In early May, Sprint counted 600,000 femtocells in its network and said it is aiming to distribute a total of 1 million. The operator also will update its Airave femtocell product to support CDMA services over its 800 MHz network. Sprint's femtocells were initially provided by Samsung, but Airvana currently supplies Sprint's EV-DO Airave femtocell.

On the small cell front, an incumbent local exchange carrier such as AT&T has a significant advantage because it has lots of its own fiber that it can use to backhaul small cell deployments or use as leverage in agreements with rival ILECs whose fiber it wants to access.

A non-ILEC such as Sprint, on the other hand, needs to lease many of its backhaul connections from ILECs and cable TV providers. In a recent filing with the FCC, Sprint requested regulatory requirements be enacted to ensure that if Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) is allowed to consummate its $3.9 billion AWS spectrum purchase and business agreements with four cable operators, the companies will offer backhaul services to all wireless carriers on a non-discriminatory basis, "with costs proportional to the requested capacity of a line."

Sprint said wired network operators are charging the same backhaul rates for microcells as they charge for connections to macrocells with much wider coverage and generally much heavier use, making it difficult to cost effectively deploy small cells.

Those lease costs as well as the logistics of laying fiber to thousands of small cells are leading operators to consider wireless backhaul. According to Michael Howard, co-founder and principal analyst at Infonetics, there are currently a number of requests for proposal (RFPs) being circulated by large U.S. operators that intend to use wireless technologies for their small cell backhaul. "The operators we have spoken with said that about 80 percent of their small cells will be connected using three types of wireless backhaul--microwave, millimeter wave and licensed non-line of sight," he said.

For more:
- see this GigaOM article
- see this Light Reading article

Related articles:
Wireless the likely winner in small cell backhaul
Sprint: Verizon's cable deals will crush backhaul, Wi-Fi offloading markets
AT&T's Rinne: Small cells, SON and VoLTE coming in 2012, 2013
Sprint counts 600,000 femtocells, plans to update Airave
AT&T to test small cells, counts 'several hundred thousand' femtocells

This article was updated June 25, 2012, to include a comment from AT&T.