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Guest Column: What Isn’t a Small Cell?

Iain Gillott, 
President and Founder, 
iGR Research

—  One of the main questions we have been asked recently is “what is a small cell?”  This is an interesting question since it appears that different operators and vendors have different views on this. As the old adage goes, the answer is, “it depends on what you are selling!”

Before we get into what is and what is not a small cell, a funny story.  A few years ago, I was at an analyst conference and asked a vendor (who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty) if their definition of HetNet [heterogeneous network] and, therefore, small cells includes Wi-Fi.  The answer was a categorical “No,” since Wi-Fi was not considered part of the mobile operator’s managed network.  A year later, at the same event and after the vendor had made a couple of Wi-Fi acquisitions, we asked the same question – this time the answer was “Yes.”  The only difference was of course that the vendor now had a carrier Wi-Fi solution to sell.

The same trend seems to be affecting small cells as a whole.  For example, some vendors do not consider DAS to be “small.”  You will have guessed by now that it is mainly vendors that do not have a DAS solution that take this view.  Similarly, femtocells are sometimes counted in small-cell TAM and forecast stats, and sometimes not.  There is no consistency.

In order to define what a small cell is, and is not, it is worth going back and examining the problem we are trying to solve.  HetNets, and small cells, came about because of the need to provide mobile RF coverage and/or capacity at specific points in a dense urban area, the assumption being that the existing tower-based cell sites were at capacity.  So the vision for HetNets was that the cells would get smaller and become more tightly integrated, and managed, to provide the necessary capacity and coverage.

So with this in mind, what is a small cell?  Basically, in my view, any RF network component that is not nailed to a tower!  Since small cells are really macro cells with the power turned down and without a tower, this means that just about any of the range of RF solutions fit the definition.  This would include remote radio head, Wi-Fi, DAS, femtocells and even home signal boosters.

I realize the last one on the list is a little controversial.  The goal of the signal booster is to improve the in-building coverage – instead of being a managed part of the network as a cell is, the signal booster takes the available signal and juices it a little as it is retransmitted indoors.  To the end user, the result is the same as a femtocell – five bars of coverage in the home.  So the end result is the same as deploying a small cell, although of course the booster is not under the control of the operator and the operator does not get the “feel good” benefit from the consumer of the improved signal.

Sizing the entire small cell market is difficult, of course, if no one has the same definition.  iGR’s approach is therefore to size each small cell market segment separately and define what is included and what is not.  But from a macro perspective (pardon the pun), the small cell market is significant, especially because in reality it includes everything that is not nailed to a tower.

Iain Gillott, the founder and president of iGR and iGR Semiconductor Research, has been involved in the wireless industry, as both a vendor and analyst, for nearly 20 years. iGR was founded in 2000 as iGillottResearch  in order to provide in-depth market analysis and data focused exclusively on the wireless and mobile industry. Before founding iGR, Gillott was a Group Vice President in IDC’s Telecommunications practice, managing IDC’s worldwide research on wireless and mobile communications and Internet access, telecom brands, residential and small business telecommunications and telecom billing services. Prior to joining IDC, he was in various technical roles and a proposal manager at EDS (now HP), responsible for preparing new business proposals to wireless and mobile operators. For more information, visit igr-inc.com