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Small Cells a Huge Opportunity for Wireless Industry, Panelists say

Panelists described small cells as being at the base of the growth hockey stick, during Small Cells, Big Deal at the AGL Conference, March 20, held at the Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville. Panelists from three major carriers — AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint — and an equipment manufacturer, SpiderCloud, discussed how the deployment of metrocells, microcells, picocells will provide ample opportunities for the industry as a majority of that work will be outsourced.

“AT&T is working with partners to design and deploy small cells,” Melissa Ashurst, area business development manager, AT&T Antenna Services Group, said. “It is not something just anyone can do.”

Sprint will leverage the implementation expertise in the wireless industry, as well, according Seth Jones, Sprint senior manager, network engineering. “In a world where the rounding error for small cell deployment being in the tens of thousands, there is no way we can do it alone,” he said. “There will be a lot of outsourced activity in this space.

Jones added that tower companies already have the expertise to have a play in outdoor small cell deployment. “Outdoor small cells look very similar to a cellular panel antenna on the side of a building,” he said. “They require an understanding of mounting, climber safety, getting power to the antenna and how to backhaul the signal.”

While a small cell can be described as “anything and everything that is smaller than a macro-site,” further definition is needed as well as a greater understanding of the deployment complexities, panelists said.

“The challenge is defining exactly what is a small cell and how do you put it into a box so everybody understands it,” Jones 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.”

Panelists discussed how small cells are integral to carriers’ strategies as they constantly work to avoid 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.

“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 [small cell] 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 [coverage footprints per site].”

HetNet News: Qualcomm, Sprint Go Off to the Races

Qualcomm and Sprint have demonstrated phase two of an over-the-air trial of TD-LTE small cells at the Phoenix International Raceway in Phoenix during a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. The density of mobile devices and high mobile demand, as well as challenging RF conditions at such an event made it ideal spot for a trial.

The deployment involved 31 pico stations provided by Airspan and installed by Qualcomm. AirSynergy 2000 LTE-A pico base stations were installed in the track area, using the company’s self-optimizing network (SON) technology. According to Qualcomm, the small cell network has an equivalent density of 1,000 cells per square kilometer operating in Sprint’s band 41 TD-LTE spectrum. It integrated the company’s UltraSON technology for improving data performance and quality of service in small cell networks.

Mobile Planner on the Way

iBwave has an upcoming release of iBwave Mobile Planner, the mobile app that greatly simplifies the design of indoor small cell networks and integration with HetNets. Timely, the new release comes as mobile operators around the world are starting to move with urban and enterprise small cell deployments, and early adopters are beginning to execute. According to Gordon Mansfield, chair of the Small Cell Forum, “The industry needs tools and methods to ease and accelerate the upcoming volume of small cell deployments.” iBwave’s product is positioned to enhance such deployments by simplifying the design work for indoor small cell networks. It enables technicians with only basic IT or Wi-Fi experience to create designs in a few steps: choose floor plan and site parameters; select and place small cells, and visualize network coverage contours. The designs can be saved and uploaded by other teams. Since designs are created on-site, the amount of time and costs for small cell planning are significantly reduced.

Ixia Writes the Book 

A new e-book authored by wireless test equipment company Ixia, called “Small Cells, Big Challenge – A Definitive Guide to Designing and Deploying HetNets” has just been released. It takes a timely and in-depth look at using HetNets to keep pace with subscriber demand. This first-of-its-kind resource explores the benefits of HetNets to operators and customers, unfolding deployment plans, and the many technology challenges.

The book shares detailed best practices and strategies for optimizing HetNet deployments, including device selection, interference, mobility, security, end-user QoE, and more. A complimentary copy can be downloaded from: hetnet.ixiacom.com

— Ernest Worthman, Executive Editor, Small Cells magazine

AT&T, Verizon Wireless to Lead 2014 Tower Adds: RBC

AT&T and Verizon Wireless will drive a robust market this year for wireless infrastructure, according to the Wireless Retail and Network Update by RBC Capital Markets, while T-Mobile and Sprint will surge next year. The firm projects site additions and new lease equivalents will rise as high as 25,000, compared to just under 23,000 in 2013.

“For the wireless sector, 2014 demand drivers will likely feature an increased mix shift toward new leases, driven by capacity/infill requirements at AT&T and Verizon,” wrote Jonathan Atkin, RBC analyst.

The drivers of leasing and amendment demand this year, according to RBC Capital Markets, reflect continued LTE overlay work, including Verizon’s deployment of LTE in the Advanced Wireless Service (AWS) band, and a robust pace of new site additions.

Last year AT&T and Verizon added 2,000 and 2,600 sites, respectively. Around half of those adds came in the fourth quarter, according to RBC stats.

“We believe each carrier plans to continue that late-year run rate through 2014,” Atkin wrote. “As it pertains to AWS [band] activity at Verizon, we believe the carrier will add 12,000-13,000 sites in 2014, with a similar pace plausible in 2015 as the company completes its coverage at that frequency.”

In the second-half 2014 and 2015, Atkins expects Sprint will accelerate its 2.5 GHz LTE deployments, which may have been delayed due to equipment shortages. T-Mobile will increase to its LTE coverage footprint at 1900 MHz to reach 250 million in population and deploy of LTE at 700 MHz covering 158 million in population. RBC estimates 7,000-8,000 sites will be slated for LTE deployment at both 700 MHz and 1900 MHz.

“We believe Sprint continues to be challenged in its network improvement initiatives, due to equipment availability constraints for its 2.5 GHz LTE deployment, using 8T8R [eight transmitter/eight receiver] technology, and it is facing greater competitive challenges at retail than anticipated earlier in the year from T-Mobile and AT&T, with its tablet-centric postpaid growth a pressure on ARPU,” Atkin wrote.

Sprint plans to deploy Sprint Spark, which uses 8T8R carrier aggregation technology, in 100 largest metro areas in the next three years, with initial availability in five markets beginning last fall. A company press release stated that Sprint 4G LTE service will be available by mid-2014 to approximately 250 million Americans, and Sprint expects 100 million Americans will have Sprint Spark or 2.5 GHz coverage by the end of 2014.

Sprint is still behind Verizon’s LTE speeds and has not made much progress in its network upgrade initiatives recently, according to RBC’s analysis.

“We believe activity levels will ramp further in 2015 at Sprint and T-Mobile as we believe the 8T8R 2.5 GHz deployments (Sprint) and 700 MHz and 1900 MHz LTE overlays and coverage expansion (T-Mobile) will gain momentum,” Atkin wrote.

This Is for You, Sparky

By Don Bishop…

Spark. What a name. What. A. Name.

When Sprint chose the name Sprint Spark for its network capability for enhanced wireless peak data speeds of up to 60 Mbps, maybe the company did not know the name evokes the earliest mode of wireless communications while embracing the latest. For those of the wrinkle-free (faces), the word wireless has no meaning other than today’s commercial service for untethered communications using smartphones and tablets.

One hundred years ago, the word “wireless” referred to what then was an amazing development: the ability to send telegrams without using telegraph wires. Hence, “wireless.” Telegram? What’s that?

A telegram was a text message sent by wire. Today’s text messages are short, and the shorter, the better, it seems. So it was in the early days of telegrams when bandwidth was extremely limited, whether on wires or by wireless. Another echo of the past: Twitter-length messages by wire and by wireless.

And it just so happens that in those early days, wireless signals were generated by sparks. Electricity would be made to jump a

gap to make a spark and thereby create radio waves. The early transmitters were called “spark gap” transmitters. Wireless operators who sent and received messages often were nicknamed “Sparks” or “Sparky.” Ships at sea and those sailing the Great Lakes were among the earliest users of wireless. Heinrich Hertz conclusively proved the existence of the electromagnetic waves used for wireless by using a spark transmitter in 1887.

Twenty years ago or so, when the word “wireless” replaced the word “radio” and mostly replaced the word “cellular” in describing commercial service for untethered communications, it was an interesting throwback across 80 years of telecommunications history. Now, Sprint has reached even further back in using the word “spark” to encompass a service it intends to support a new generation of online gaming, virtual reality, advanced cloud services and other applications requiring high bandwidth.

Sprint Spark now is available in Austin, Fort Worth and San Antonio, Texas; Fort Lauderdale and Tampa, Fla.; and in Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami and New York. Sprint plans to deploy Sprint Spark in about 100 of America’s largest cities during the next three years.

“When we bring Sprint Spark into a market, it is like trading up to the fastest sports car on the showroom floor,” said Stephen Bye, Sprint’s chief technology officer.

I wonder when Detroit will introduce a new car called a horseless carriage.

Proposed Sprint/T-Mo Merger Top Story for 2014

Wireless carrier consolidation and the accompanied jitters it inspires will be one of the top stories again in 2014.

As we headed in to the holiday break, the Wall Street Journal reported on Dec. 13 that Sprint was considering a merger with T-Mobile US, which set the industry into full speculation mode.

If such a merger would occur, Jennifer M. Fritzsche, senior analyst, Wells Fargo wrote, it would have the biggest impact on Crown Castle International, which has an overlap between T-Mobile US and Sprint totaling 8,000 sites, which accounts for 20 percent of its U.S. portfolio and 10 percent of its consolidated site rental revenues, according to Fritzsche.  SBA Communications would be the least affected with an overlap of 2,000 sites or 13 percent of its domestic portfolio. American Tower has an overlap on 5,500 sites, which 20 percent of its domestic portfolio, but it accounts for less than 5 percent of its revenue.

Average remaining term of leases on affected sites at all of the big three tower companies is seven years.

“We would be affected very little by the combo of Sprint and T-Mobile US in terms of existing overlap, however it would affect our growth model and likely pricing on exit as I think initially the entire market would trade down,” said Ronald G. Bizick, II, CEO, Tarpon Towers.

The Nikkei Asian Review reported on Dec. 25 that Sprint’s owner, SoftBank, was in the final stages of talks with Deutsche Telekom to purchase the majority of shares in T-Mobile US for $19 billion. SoftBank has approached Credit Suisse, Mizuho Bank, Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank, looking for funding, according to Bloomberg News.

And then there are the antitrust and competition concerns of two major carriers merging. Not forgotten is AT&T’s $39 billion merger proposal for T-Mobile US in 2011 that was nixed by the Department of Justice. Worries caused by that deal stifled growth in cell site development for the better part of that year.

A Sprint/T-Mobile US merger would create a super carrier with 100 million subs, making it competitive with the current duopoly, AT&T and Verizon. The combo would also make Softbank the second largest carrier in the world behind China Mobile. Whether the deal goes through depends in part on whether it is seen by the FCC and DoJ as improving competition or harming it.

Another issue might be timing of the merger, according to Mobile Ecosystem analyst Mark Lowenstein. “[Softbank’s] Masayoshi Son’s already uphill battle [to merge with T-Mobile US] has become progressively steeper given T-Mobile’s 2013 trifecta of successful Metro integration/expansion, rapid LTE deployment, and success with its ‘un-carrier’ strategy,” he wrote. “AT&T’s planned acquisition of Leap will put further pressure on Sprint MVNOs. Plus, the incentive auctions have been delayed into 2015, pushing commercial reality of additional sub-2.5 GHz spectrum for Sprint even further out.”

To make matters even more complicated, Charlie Ergen, the driver of much of last year’s merger melodramas, has decided he may want to poke in his nose. Reuters reported on Dec. 18 that DISH Network was considering its own bid for T-Mobile US, pitting it against Sprint, the carrier it used to want to buy.