By Ernest Worthman, Editor, Small Cell Magazine….
2013 proved to be a pivotal year for the small cell arena. While to some, not much appeared to be happening on the surface, a lot was happening under the covers. 2013 was the staging year for 2014, when small cell deployment will really start to show up on the radar screen.
There are a number of signs that showed up this year that tell me we have arrived at the threshold of the next major redirection of the wireless infrastructure – and not just in the USA. For example, in Slovenia, in June of this year, the Small Cell Forum, in partnership with European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) organized what was called Plugfest.
The event was designed to verify the interoperability between LTE small cells and evolved packet cores (EPC) equipment from different vendors, to cultivate an effective ecosystem of standardized small cells (3G, LTE and Wi-Fi). The intent of this event was, among other things, to show operators and consumers that a wide choice of products and systems can interoperate. As well, it presented a roadmap on how LTE small cell deployment will help to solve the user’s demand for ubiquitous coverage on the go and for innovative mobile data services with sufficient bandwidth. Another interesting direction unveiled at the event was how the future of LTE small cell evolution will lead to the small cell becoming a media gateway to the connected home, combining LTE and M2M/IOT (machine to machine and Internet of things) technology.
Another ringing of the small cell bell was Verizon’s deployment of small cells into its 4G LTE network in the last half of this year. And of course, AT&T’s widely publicized commitment to begin small cell deployments in 2014 and to have at least 40,000 of them on line by the end of 2015.
One of the biggest topics of 2013 was the arrival of voice over LTE (VoLTE) on the small cell scene. VoLTE discussions started in earnest back in 2011 but it hadn’t gained a lot of traction until this year. VoLTE technology, which is a mobility-enhanced version of basic Voice-over-IP (VoIP), got some serious eyes-on as 2013. South Korea Telecom announced mid-year that it had more than 4.5 million active users of the technology.
About the same time, Verizon this summer reiterated that its first VoLTE-compatible handset will launch by the end of the year, but we haven’t seen that yet. As it stands today, 2014 is when they will actually flip the switch and have general availability of devices, but 2013 proved to be the pivotal year to bring everything to the starting line. And, AT&T is following Verizon’s footsteps in its plans to launch VoLTE services by the end of 2013, but here it is mid-December and like Verizon, no release has been seen. Nevertheless, a lot of progress was made in staging for VoLTE and 2013 will go down in history as the year VoLTE became a reality.
2013 was the year that bring your own device (BYOD) and bring your own anything (BYOX) took hold in the enterprise. This year firmly put enterprise small cell systems on the map several locations. BYOD is the platform that allows employees to use their personal devices to access company data or applications at work. By mid-December, a whopping 82 percent of enterprises reported that they had adopted, or intend to adopt, some form or another of BYOD strategies going forward. If nothing else, 2013 showed us that BYOD/X is going to be the future of worker mobility, from just using employee-owned smart phones to hook into company meetings and conference calls to full access to company data and systems via employee –owned smart computing devices.
2013 also gave us a peek at an exciting new development in the de facto small cell wireless data platform, Wi-Fi. In early 2013, Cisco Systems introduced a carrier-grade, end-to-end Wi-Fi infrastructure solution capable of delivering the technology to deploy Next-Generation Hotspots (NGH). In September, Boingo Wireless launched the first NGH at Chicago’s O’Hare airport.
NGHs are designed to simulate the same type of connectivity that cellular networks exhibit. They are seen as an ideal solution for off-loading traffic at peak usage time and in dense traffic locations such as airports. The result should be a seamless user experience as is found on the cellular network with mobile phones. What this means is that smartphones, PDAs, laptops, tablets, netbooks – literally any wireless device – will function seamlessly across multiple subscriber and service heterogeneous networks, integrating 2G/3G/4G LTE and femtocell (licensed) networks and Wi-Fi (unlicensed) networks.
Most NGHs are still in late-stage field trials but the O’Hare system is up and running commercially. Look for NGHs to start rolling out sometime in 2014, once the leading carriers iron out a few of the issues, such as backward compatibility and cross-platform interoperability.
Finally, while there was a lot small cell activity in 2013, much of it was under the covers posturing and positioning for the ramping up of more visible activity starting in 2014. There were a number of acquisitions in and around the periphery of small cell technology, such as Intel’s impending purchase of the wireless assets of small cell player, Mindspeed, which acquired Picochip in 2012 for its signal processing expertise in IP for base stations, Cisco’s acquisition of small cell provider Ubiqusys, and Qualcomm’s acquisition of small cell pioneer DesignArt Networks, to mention the more well known.
SpiderCloud was one of the top players in small cell networks this year, along with iBwave, a leading provider of indoor small cell solutions. SpiderCloud has been involved in a number of avant-garde events this past year such as the commercial launch of its Enterprise Radio Access Network (E-RAN) by Vodafone Netherlands. The system will be able to offer enterprise customers edge-of-the-envelope, in-building coverage and capacity with a scalable, flexible small cell system. It was also scored a number of accolades for its LTE RAN and its scalable, multi-access 3G, Wi-Fi and 4G/LTE small cell system.
What all of this points to is that this year was a banner traction year for small cells and its technology. 2013 was the ramp-up year for tomorrow’s small cell infrastructure. Next year there will be a whole lot more to talk about in the 2014 wrap.