Jarich: Simplicity vs. complexity - mobile networks, small cells in 2012

Current Analysis Peter Jarich

Peter Jarich

It's well understood that turning the complex into something simple is a key component of success for consumer-facing mobile products and technologies. How many times have we heard the iPhone's success attributed to the fact that, "it just works?" Likewise, as much as we might all want to see mobile wallet or payments solutions take off in the U.S., we all know that a jumble of different solutions tied to specific carriers, banks and devices will continue to hold them back. 

With the go-forward reality for mobile networks including multiple technologies (2G, 3G, 4G, WiFi), multiple architectures (macrocells and small cells) and multiple vendors, it might seem like simplicity has no place in the network. Sure, vendors might position their managed services offers as a solution for helping operators deal with network and business complexity. A good deal of this complexity, however, is of the vendors' own making as they push their network visions. 

I was reminded of this tension between network complexity and simplicity a few weeks ago at Alcatel-Lucent's 2012 Technology Symposium out in Silicon Valley when the head of their wireless division, Wim Sweldens (you know, the man who brought us the lightRadio cube last year) demonstrated how their "metro dock" simplifies metrocell installation. Managing a network of small cells may not be simple, but at least installing them can be. And where installation costs play directly into continuing OpEx burdens, this type of simplicity is a good thing. Luckily, as much as networks and network technologies are getting increasingly complex, the simplicity theme isn't that hard to spot.

Multi-Vendor Small Cells: From a positioning standpoint, two very divergent stances on the integration of small cells into networks have become apparent over the last year.  In particular, some network incumbents have been arguing that het nets are best single-sourced in order to ensure tight coordination between small cells and their macrocell brethren. Other vendors, however, have been arguing that this is nothing more than FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) and that small cells are 100% a multi-vendor opportunity--a necessity, even, if you want portfolio flexibility. Where it's in an operator's interest to demand multi-vendor support (and it seems like they're doing this), it will be telling whether or not the operational simplicity of single-vendor solutions wins out.

Multi-Vendor SON: Where SON (self organizing networks) solutions are largely about offloading formerly manual network operations and deployment tasks to automated systems, operational simplicity is at their core. Of course, where a network has been built by multiple vendors, the coordination of multiple SON solutions can mitigate some of the value. AT&T's decision to work with Israeli startup Intucell on its multi-vendor SON solution directly speaks to the problem.

Ease of Siting: Before networks can be managed, they need to be deployed.  Deploying hundreds of thousands of small cells, however, is clearly a daunting and complicated task. This is why Alcatel-Lucent spent time reliving a FedEx moment with Sweldens' metro dock demonstration ("it's so easy even a vice president can do it…").  This is why Ericsson and E-Blink have been talking up their "fronthaul" solutions for high-capacity wireless links between remote radio and baseband units. This is why Mesaplexx launched its xCube filter solution for reducing the cooling demands on active antennas, supporting space efficiency, power efficiency and multi-band implementations in the process.

Tech Integration: Demands for deployment and operational efficiency would seem to argue for multi-standard small cells.  At the very least, it would argue for the de facto inclusion of WiFi in any small cell solution circa 2012 as operators formulate (or execute on) their WiFi service plans. Strangely enough, then, looking at the small cell solutions from major RAN vendors, WiFi isn't universally represented. Some have made simultaneous cellular and WiFi a product feature. Some small cell "leaders," however, have made WiFi nothing more than an "option" or have it in their plans.  Others have only sheepishly included WiFi in their messaging. 

Much of this might be obvious to anyone following the evolution of how networks are being launched and deployed--even if network vendors seem to be in a race to one-up each other with ever more advanced and complex network innovations. 

Still, I was struck by this notion recently around the discussions of "agile radio" as a solution for making the most efficient use of spectrum, particularly spectrum currently in the hands of government agencies. If you haven't taken a look at the presentation on spectrum sharing coming out of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology late last month, it's worth a look. It lays out a compelling vision. Yet, while I have no doubt that business structures and network technologies can be engineered to support the shared use of spectrum, I also have no doubt that they'd be awfully complex…impacting the way operators look at them and how they prioritize them in their search for new network efficiencies and spectrum acquisition. 

Peter Jarich is the Service Director leading Current Analysis telecom infrastructure practice. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.