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Small Cell Promise: Offers higher capacity, coverage and speed

May 26, 2015
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The world is moving rapidly towards the gigabyte revolution, with the global mobile data demand expected to reach 1 GB per user per day by 2020. The internet of things currently supports 5 billion connected devices and by 2025, the number is expected to go up to 50 billion.

Like the rest of the world, India too is moving towards the gigabyte revolution. The number of internet users in the country is expected to grow from 48 million in 2012 to 500 million in 2020, and smartphone penetration from over 12 per cent in 2014 to 50 per cent in 2015. According to the Nokia MBIT Index 2015, the average data usage per subscriber per month for both 2G and 3G has been growing exponentially in India. The average 2G data usage has grown from 146 MB in 2013 to 216 MB in 2014, and the average 3G data usage per MB from 532 MB in 2013 to 680 MB in 2014.

In such a scenario, operators need to upgrade their networks to achieve 10x performance. This implies ensuring 1,000x more capacity in existing or new telecom networks. Traditional networks are clearly incapable of handling this surge in data demand, and Indian operators are facing several challenges at present while augmenting their macrocell-based backhaul networks. Some of these issues relate to limited spectrum, the high cost of setting up new sites, unavailability of new sites, network congestion, high voice interference, and limited rural and indoor coverage.

The above challenges can mostly be addressed by investing in new and emer-ging technologies like small cells. The key benefits offered by small cell-based networks are greater regulatory compliance (pertaining to electromagnetic field radiation), higher data carrying capacities and speeds, larger coverage areas, higher spectral efficiency, improved quality of service, precise tracking of customer usage patterns, and lower cost of deployment.

Service providers are considering the deployment of small cells globally as well as in India as they offer much higher data capacity in areas where it is needed the most by bringing the network closer to users. To meet the growing demand for data-led services, it is becoming imperative for Indian operators to deploy small cells indoors and outdoors, at homes, in offices, and on signboards and lamp posts in 3G, 4G and Wi-Fi networks.

According to their requirements, the telecom industry can choose from a large number of small cell types to address issues related to capacity, coverage and speed. Operators can employ solutions like femtocells, picocells, microcells, macrocells and Wi-Fi or distributed antenna systems (DAS). With the growing rate of 3G and 4G adoption, the usage of various applications and video content is increasing, particularly indoors. Operators can leverage DAS to keep pace with the increasing video consumption as such systems provide contiguous indoor coverage. The key feature of DAS-based infrastructure is that it supports multiple operators and multiple technologies.

Most importantly, small cell deployments help operators lower the total cost of ownership (TCO) as they can maximise macrocell usage through 6-sector and active antennas, baseband pooling and refarming. They can also make use of traffic management solutions like caching, content optimisation, quality of service and deep packet inspection. In addition, small cells can be deployed to complement macro, micro, pico (cluster) and femto cells, Wi-Fi and offloading.

As per industry forecasts, the growth in small cell deployment will be led by the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region, with countries like China, Japan and Korea expected to make significant investments in networks based on small cells. After APAC, the growth will be driven by regions like Europe, the Middle East and Africa, North America, and the Caribbean and Latin America. With the increasing deployment of small cells, global telecom markets will also witness significant shifts in the location of small cell units. It is estimated that the share of outdoor small cell units will be 59 per cent as of calendar year 2015, whereas that of indoor small cell units will be 41 per cent. However, by 2019, the share of outdoor small cell units is expected to come down to 49 per cent while the share of indoor small cell units increases to 51 per cent.

At present, there is significant momentum around small cell deployment in advanced markets as operators are beginning to understand that small cells are essential tools in addressing indoor coverage and capacity issues. Going forward, after macro upgrades, a large share of small cells will be used for capacity additions in hotspots and, subsequently, hotzones.

Based on a presentation by K. Prashanth, Head, National Radio Planning, Nokia Solutions and Networks

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