As the Networked Society takes shape, providing the right user experience is a top priority for operators. Bandwidth hungry applications, common on smartphones, tablets and other connected devices, are driving data traffic sky high. For networks to keep pace with demand, operators can improve and densify them as well as adding small cells in what is known as heterogeneous networks.
Author: Marcel Noordman, Principal Mobile Broadband Consultant, Ericsson Latin America
Operators have many options to expand coverage, capacity and performance of their current networks with measures such as adding spectrum and carriers, upgrading to higher modulation schemes and data speeds, increasing receiver and transmitter diversity, radio network optimization, sectorization and deploying LTE in new spectrum on the same grid. After maxing out on these options, operators can deploy supporting small cells to provide further coverage and capacity.
Small cells are a great way to solve capacity and coverage problems in hotspots such as busy city squares, commercial streets, railway stations, hotels, shopping malls, offices and airports. In coordination with the rest of the network they can maximize reuse of existing spectrum in a way that is more cost effective than building new macro sites.
Making small cells work effectively as part of an integrated heterogeneous network needs careful planning and precise location in the network. This puts requirements on site acquisition and the availability of carrier grade backhaul. Furthermore, the total network cost typically scales with the number of sites (large and small). Keeping operations and maintenance costs under control can become an issue.
Recently, AT&T announced it will issue an RFI for small cells. However, it will take some time before we will see heterogeneous networks being deployed in Latin America. Both supply- and demand-side requirements are not in place to expect implementation in the short term. On the demand side, traffic is growing fast, but is still matched by increasing capacity through network upgrades and carrier expansions. Further expansion of 3G coverage to match 2G and the introduction of LTE will provide further capacity increase in Latin America in the coming years. On the supply side, fully integrated small cells with all the functionality to work in a coordinated fashion is in vendors’ roadmaps and will come to market in the coming years. What we do see today in the region is the deployment of uncoordinated small cells on unlicensed (e.g., Wi-Fi across all the large operators) or dedicated licensed (e.g., Femto) spectrum. As explained above, both can be short term solutions to specific problems, but need to be complemented by a more efficient network evolution. It will be the most traffic-intense markets, such as Chile and Brazil, in which we will see the first deployments of heterogeneous networks.
In summary, small cells have an important role to play in solving specific coverage, capacity and performance issues in hotspots. Making them work in an effective way, however, requires careful network planning and integration with the rest of the network. Failing to do so will result in ineffective and costly networks that do not deliver on expectations.
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