Survey: 76% of industry insiders say small cells play a role in their networks

Nearly three-fourths of telecom professionals feel that small cells help improve network and service performance and the customer experience at the network edge, and nearly 30 percent say small cells are key to the future of their network architecture, according to a recent survey sponsored by microwave backhaul provider Exalt Communications.

The blind survey of 124 telecom professionals was completed during the first quarter of 2012 and addressed numerous aspects of U.S. backhaul capacity and broadband penetration. Nearly half of respondents, 44 percent, identified themselves as affiliated with a Tier One mobile operator, while 11 percent reported an affiliation with a Tier Two mobile carrier.

When asked about small cells' importance in network architecture, 29 percent of survey respondents agreed that it was key to their network's future, while 47 percent said small cells are at least an element in their networks.

Capacity issues in urban areas are driving demand for small cells, according to 36 percent of respondents.

The need for small cells "is a must, a fact of life," Amir Zoufonoun, Exalt's president and CEO, told FierceBroadbandWireless. But a gating factor for continued development of this market is the state of backhaul. "Backhaul technologies for small cells are in their infancy in terms of development," he said.

Perhaps showing the nascence of the small-cell market, 39 percent of those surveyed said they would be "likely" or "very likely" to turn to a startup vendor for small-cell technology. Another 30 percent, however, said that only established or incumbent vendors would be considered.

"Operators, especially the bigger ones, are very open to having small companies, young companies [and] innovative companies come in and participate in this next phase of development," said Zoufonoun.

The survey revealed the operators are exploring new approaches and proprietary architectures in their quest to add capacity via small-cell technologies. "Carriers are completely open to all of these different ideas and are just saying, ‘Bring them in. We want to try them out,'" said Zoufonoun. "That just shows [the best approach] hasn't been figured out, and there's a lot of room for innovation."

Getting into broader political issues, although 32 percent of survey respondents "believe that broadband connectivity should be a basic human right," 65 percent of respondents said ROI is holding back broadband connectivity in rural areas. Zoufonoun said lack of backhaul is a critical gating factor for rural broadband.

Zoufonoun said that in his experience, wireless technologies provide a quicker solution than copper or fiber for bringing broadband to the masses. "The drivers for mobile are a lot stronger in our markets, all over the world, by the way: the middle of Africa, the Middle East, very rural areas, places where they've never had anything. The rate at which mobile grows is just phenomenal compared to wired counterparts," he said.

"This just shows what people really want," Zoufonoun said. "People want to have their cake and eat it too. People want all that bandwidth, and they want it everywhere."

Nearly 60 percent of those surveyed did not think either major political party would go more than the other to promote broadband in rural areas. Among those who had a preference, 25 percent thought Democrats would do more for rural broadband versus 16 percent who thought Republicans would lead in this area.

Exalt noted that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration has estimated U.S. broadband penetration is 68 percent, but only 50 percent of the telecom professionals surveyed accurately assessed the nation's current broadband penetration rate. When asked what would most positively impact the availability of broadband connectivity in rural areas, 32 percent of respondents cited more competition from local utility providers, while 26 percent cited additional government funding. On the same question, however, 15 percent of respondents said less government regulation would drive rural broadband connectivity, while 7 percent voted for more government mandates.

For more:
- see this Exalt release

Related articles:
Furchtgott-Roth: The dangers of regulating the wireless industry in the 'public interest'
Small cells driving surge in microwave and millimeter-wave backhaul
Mobile, not home, broadband is winning the people's hearts
TechNet: Smartphones bad, home broadband good
Study: U.S. mobile backhaul demand to grow nearly 10x by 2016

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