The beehive of activity in large metropolitan cities like London or New York provides an obvious stage for network augmentation through innovations like small cells.
These low-profile nodes that live just about anywhere at the edge of a network help carriers relieve pressure from today’s extreme data deluge. Smartphones and tablets, with data-rich applications and always-connected enablement, are driving a massive surge in today’s network infrastructure demands and forming a great need for technologies like small cells.
Now picture a more rural, developing area within Africa, India or China. The high-tech hustle and bustle of a major city probably doesn’t shoot top to mind. But developing countries are still benefitting greatly from small cells, albeit in different ways.
In Africa, small cells provide a way to create core networks that’s much simpler and cost effective than macro cell-based networks could provide. Since the growth in these areas is actually quite swift, small cells are helping quickly fill the capacity void.
In countries like India, the tremendous growth in mobile device usage, whether on smartphones or tablets, yields new network complexities in the region and make it crucial to have a comprehensive radio and Ethernet backhaul strategy. Then take China, for instance, which will soon begin issuing 4G permits. Miao Wei, head of China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), declared that the country will start issuing 4G permits in 2013, providing a boon for next-gen wireless implementations.
Characteristics of LTE deployments around the globe are diverse. Some countries are still working to develop their underlying networks before small cells become useful; others have issues with continuous service and even basic electricity. But when it comes to small cells as a network elixir, the fundamentals of deployment and service assurance are universal.
What are small cells?
Examples of small cells include outdoor metro cells deployed on utility poles or building facades, indoor picocells improving the coverage in areas such as public transport hubs, distributed antenna systems used in public venues like campuses and stadiums, and femtocells providing an improved indoor mobile network experience in residences.
These tiny cells have come a long way in recent years. According to Informa Telecoms and Media, 97.5 percent of mobile operator respondents believe that small cells are key for the future of mobile networks.
Small cells provide a small radio footprint that can range from 10 meters within urban and in-building locations to 2 km for a rural location. In comparison, macrocells have a range of a few miles or kilometers. With its smaller range, small cells can provide in-building and outdoor wireless service. Of note, in high-density cities, some studies indicate that 20 percent of the cell towers handle 80 percent of the mobile traffic, reducing network performance for the end user. Moreover, 80 percent of mobile traffic occurs indoors.
But, as it is said, with great power comes great responsibility. Throwing more nodes into the network fundamentally changes how operators must ensure their system is running according to plan and consumers are receiving the services for which they’ve paid. A carrier needs visibility into what’s going on with the new cells. Doing this while keeping costs down and performance high will prove a challenge for mobile carriers in coming months and years. There are several ways to achieve this.
Operators can get the most out of small cell deployments through the surgical placement of small cells and mastering the interaction between the small cells and the traditional macro network. In addition, small cell site locations must be determined based on actual, localized data traffic demand.
Geo-locating customer experience is also key to reveal data hot spots and customer experience black holes to intelligently drive the process of planning small cells and data offload solutions. Efficient planning leads directly to a significant improvement in customer experience, and return on capital investment.
Small cells cost a fraction of what macro cells cost, providing the opportunity to scatter many more of these systems. But because there can be so many of them, deployed so widely, testing their effectiveness becomes a cost problem. It’s expensive to send out a field technician in a truck to troubleshoot each cell when there’s a problem, so remote testing strategies will not only make things easier, they’ll become a crucial part of small cell engineering. Carriers will have to start increasing the degree of automation as it pertains to small cell service turn up, ongoing performance monitoring, and network optimization.
Additionally, as operators augment their networks further with LTE, WiFi, small cells, etc., it can create more complexity. Software-Defined Networking, which shifts the brains of networking to central software systems from hardware, will also become more prominent for carriers as they work to reduce complexity and increase agility.
To dive deeper than the typical “green light means good; red light means bad,” providers must leverage new technologies to quickly and cost effectively solve more complicated service issues and keep customers happy.
Since testing is becoming more software-based and allows providers to see much deeper into networks, content-aware testing is the next logical step. New solutions are being released that allow providers to see what the customer is experiencing – all the way down to the individual radio access networks or small cells.
Better understanding of the customer experience is vital to ensure successful service delivery. Operators need to delve deeper into performance networks, protocols, services, and applications by device, location and customer in order to enact the right policy and network optimizations resulting in superior performance.
Location-based network awareness, which can give service providers a view of their networks down to the individual user, is also becoming more prominent. Carriers can now get a sense of exactly which systems (small or macro cells) are handling the heaviest load to inform automatic re-routing of traffic. Think of it like using a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer. Such precision yields incredible benefits for carriers looking to streamline network management.
Many small cells currently use some form of cable for backhaul. Since traditional backhaul links are reaching their effective limit thanks to all the data traveling through, Ethernet is becoming a common choice for providing small cell backhaul. It can deliver layers of service quality and can be carried over many physical media such as xDSL, fiber, cable, and microwave.
Not only is Ethernet scalable to handle the ever-increasing traffic, it can also lower backhaul costs to make small cells more financially viable. Ethernet allows for rapid activation of each small cell, better segmentation of backhaul networks, and the ability to simultaneously manage more cells in a network.
Ethernet also allows for more backhaul flexibility unlike earlier approaches. Ethernet is ideally suited to transport the native IP services LTE requires, and it inherently supports more flexible traffic management and quality of service capabilities allowing the same backhaul network to be used for a variety of voice, video, and data services. However, this flexibility also increases the need for remote service testing and performance validation.
Small cell adoption is inarguably increasing all across the world. These new deployments have the potential to quickly increase capacity and coverage where it’s most needed. Whether they serve as a low-cost alternative to larger cell towers or a facilitator of high data demands, these miniature devices are paving the way for a more connected world.
It is fundamental for mobile providers to implement such solutions correctly the first time through efficient planning and optimization. This results in a tremendous amount of time and money saved in the long run, and ultimately a better user experience.
CJ Meurell is vice president and general manager of JDSU’s Communications Test and Measurement business segment, based in the USA