SAN JOSE, Calif. — As many as 11.5 million small-cell base stations could be deployed by 2018, up from just 168,000 today, according to a status report from the Small Cell Forum. The trade group gave the update and released guidelines on using the systems in businesses as part of a regular meeting in Dallas today.
Small-cell base stations are seen as an inexpensive way to add capacity quickly to cellular networks swamped with mobile data from the rise of smartphones and tablets. The category has been dominated by low-end home versions called femtocells so far, but is slowly shifting toward beefier devices in businesses and public spaces.
To date, 56 cellular operators are using some form of small cells, most of them (44) employing femtocells for residences where cellular coverage is poor. The 168,000 systems deployed are a mix of enterprise-class cells (used by 26 carriers) and public access devices (used by 17) and do not count the much more numerous femtocells.
By 2018, half the small cells deployed will be for non-residential uses, the group predicts.
"What we are starting to see is a significant uptick in the second half of 2013 with carriers moving from trials to deployments," said Gordon Mansfield, chairman of the forum and executive director of small-cell solutions and radio access network delivery at AT&T Mobility. "The numbers will grow in 2014, but it's in 2015 and beyond that the volumes will really start to ramp."
Most of the early deployments have been in Asia, but some are starting in North America, including indoor small cells in the field in AT&T's network. As much as 80 percent of cellular traffic originates indoors, making such systems a priority for carriers, Mansfield told us.
The forum released on its website a set of technical and business guidelines for small cells used in businesses including retail shops and hospitals. They address topics including time synchronization, cellular/WiFi integration, and different models for who pays for the systems.
In February the forum will release the first part of its guidelines for outdoor urban cells with a second and final part expected in June.
"We like to bring in lessons from early adopters, and there are a lot of trials still going on that we need to capture lessons from," said Mansfield, who characterized outdoor small cells as still in "early days and trial activities."
— Rick Merritt, Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, EE Times