So far the first generation of LTE nets are all using traditional so-called macro base stations. A second wave of small cells is expected to go in behind them to help keep pace with carriers needs for capacity.
The small cells will help carriers handle an expected 30x increase in mobile data traffic over the next five years, said Ian Miller (below), director of radio networks at Spain’s Telefonica, The carrier deployed about a dozen Alca-Lu small cells around MWC’s giant Fira exhibition center as its first field trial of the technology.
“They work, but prices need to come down from about $2-5,000 euros to less than a thousand euros per small cell,” he said.
Miller may get his wish, because competition will be stiff. Traditional big base station providers and startups who have been mainly selling small so-called femto cells for residential users will converge with a new crop of medium-sized cell designs in 2013. They typically will include 3G, LTE and Wi-Fi and be geared for large businesses and carriers to deploy in building and on lamp posts.
The secret sauce for the so-called pico, micro and metro cells is software that lets carriers easily tie them into their main networks and manage traffic smoothly across all three radios. Standards for such authentication, security and management functions are still being hammered out in the main cellular (3GPP) and Web groups (IETF).
InterDigital showed at MWC an implementation of the so-called IP Flow Mobility technology for handsets and gateways.
On the product front, Ericsson announced at MWC its first pico base station (left), a 128-user device shipping next year that will combine its cellular technology with carrier-grade Wi-Fi from its acquisition of BelAir Networks.
Archrival NSN is planning a 2013 roll out a pico cell (right) using technology it acquired from Motorola that can scale up to meshes of 100 small cells that look to a carrier like one traditional base station.
Alca-Lu claims an advantage. It rolled out its Light Radio small cell concept based on a small cube-shaped antenna module at last year's MWC. Since then it has started work with as many as seven operators co-developing products, a handful of which actually got deployed by Telefonica here in a field trial. However, most observers believe real deployments of small cells won;t start until 2014, giving other players a more even shot at the market.
Among the startups, two companies are said to have the brunt of the femto cell market, One of them, Ubiquisys will start a carrier trial in two months for a new small cell it co-designed with Intel, using a Sandy Bridge processor and Intel Wi-Fi module and 80 Gbyte solid-state drive to handle novel services like Web caching. CTO Will Franks (left) says it fills a hole in giant Ericsson’s product line.
The Intel-based cell could be a break out opportunity for Ubiquisys, letting it sell the potential for differentiating services rather than just a low cost small cell. Indeed, some say the femto cells soured the market for small cells, setting up carrier expectations they were just $100 commodity boxes.
Companies such as Ubiquisys are working hard to add carrier-class management software to the systems, especially for the upcoming models that must manage traffic among 3G, LTE ad Wi-Fi nets. It got a big leg up in the business when NEC and Nokia Siemens Networks agreed to sell the Ubiquisys systems on an OEM basis.
Its close competitor IP.access is putting together a full suite of hardware and software products for carriers and businesses. They span the traveling 3G consumer femto cell shown by Andy Tiller, senior vice president of product strategy and marketing (bottom), to LTE/Wi-Fi access points, gateways and management software.
IP.access got its big break when Cisco purchased its technology to build femto cells for AT&T, in one of the largest carrier deployments of the boxes to date. Now like Ubiquisys and others it is trying to go up market to larger business and carrier cells and more value added software.
The company's gateway's, built by Radisys, current handle up to 20,000 small cells, but next-generation boxes will be expandable to manage up to 180,000 cells. It has a software team to create the complex management code they need that now outnumbers is hardware engineers by 20:1.