Panelists described small cells as anything and everything that is smaller than a macrosite, and agreed that further definition was needed as well as a greater understanding of the deployment complexities, during “Small Cells…Big Deal,” a panel at the AGL Conference, March 20, in Nashville.
“The challenge is defining exactly what is a small cell and how do you put it into a box so everybody understands it,” Seth Jones, Sprint senior manager, network engineering, said. “It is not quite baked yet. We are looking for further guidance from PCIA concerning the definition. It has an impact on zoning laws and how regulators look at what you are trying to deploy.”
At the Gaylord Opryland Resort, panelists from three major carriers — AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint — and an equipment manufacturer, SpiderCloud, discussed how multi-band, multi-protocol small cells are a necessity for carriers, because they are constantly worried about exhausting their spectrum.
“We have to innovate very aggressively to make sure we have the tools to keep up the capacity offload systems, which demand multi-band, multi-protocol small cells,” Jones said.
Small cells have evolved from consumer to IT-grade enterprise technology, similar to the evolution of Wi-Fi 15 years ago, according to Russell Agle, director of business development, SpiderCloud Wireless.
“Femtocells are akin to the consumer Wi-Fi market, good for residential use, but when you get to the dense, indoor deployments, particularly for enterprises, a separate architecture is needed,” Agle said.
Jones said that increasing spectral efficiency through macrocell splitting is simply not enough to keep up with the pace of today’s data traffic.
“As carriers begin to talk almost casually about terabytes and petabytes of information, we cannot rely only on macrocells to provide all of our users with a great level of service,” Jones said. “We have to find another ways. We have to keep distributing the network and get smaller and smaller and smaller.”
Another challenge that the wireless industry faces is getting people to realize that small cells are not lick-it and stick-it technology.
“The early intoxicating idea was that all it took to deploy a small cell was to stick it on a wall and plug it in, and it would be fully integrated and self-discovered,” Jones said. “These technologies take a lot of integration work, a lot of network optimization.”
Panelists described smalls as being at the base of the “growth hockey stick.” In the next three years, carriers will deploy a huge number of metrocells, microcells, picocells, which will provide ample opportunities for the industry as a majority of that work will be outsourced, according to Melissa Ashurst, area business development manager, AT&T Antenna Services Group.
“AT&T is working with partners to design and deploy small cells,” Ashurst said. “It is not something just anyone can do.”