SAN JOSE, Calif.--The flood of mobile data traffic from smartphones has spawned the concept of a new tier of small cellular base stations, piled on carrier networks like sandbags. LSI Corp. is among the companies still skeptical the trend will take hold.
"There have been several small scale trials [of small cells] with pluses and minuses," said Greg Huff, chief technologist at LSI, in a recent interview with EE Times. "They filled holes in coverage, but they turned out to be a management nightmare--it was very cumbersome, so they are still in evaluation," Huff said.
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For more than a year, carriers and others have described as many as four tiers of small cells below traditional macro base stations—metro cells, pico cells, micro cells and femto cells. So far, only femto cells have gained some adoption, generally for use in residences located in cellular dead zones.
"What we hear from customers is big and medium cells are the right answer, and small cells are too difficult to manage, so most equipment providers are making macro cells and one step below it," said Huff.
"We’re following our customers' bets here, and they say the biggest market for semis is in macro cells and one step below them," Huff said. "Some people are placing bets below that, but the ROI there is not great," he said.
"In four to five years [small cells] could be more interesting, but today they don’t meet ROI hurdles" in terms of units and ASPs, he added.
Not everyone agrees. In a wide ranging interview, an Ericsson executive was more bullish on small cells.
"Our biggest customers are looking for small cell deployments [because] they solve a coverage problem, but not a capacity issue," said Erik Ekudden, vice president of technology strategies and development at Ericsson. "Big operators are moving into truly heterogeneous networks--that will happen in the next year with deployments."
Ericsson claims it is the largest supplier of cellular base stations. It increasingly aims to sell a broad package of the base stations and wireless and wired backhaul networks.
Qualcomm's recent purchase of Israeli startup DesignArt Networks aimed at a similar play, selling chips for small cell base stations that integrate wireless backhaul links. DesignArt has a line of LTE chips for pico base stations now being qualified that build in wireless backhaul modems. Qualcomm will design a follow-on family combining its in-house technology with the startup’s IP.
"The chips we are designing are agnostic, and will handle metro, micro or pico cells," said Nick Karter, vice president of business development at Qualcomm Atheros. "The whole nomenclature in this space is in flux."