As a repeat visitor to the annual 4G World conference, I was excited to have the chance to return to Chicago this month for the conference billed as the world’s largest independent event covering the ecosystem for next-generation mobile broadband networks.
Over the years, the agenda has dramatically evolved. For example, there’s no more debate over which technology standard is driving the mobile revolution. Despite some early momentum, WiMAX is no longer a contender (think Betamax video). It’s an LTE world out there. The big question now is how to handle the explosive growth in mobile data services like video. The industry is preparing for an astounding 1,000x increase. Evolving 3G/4G technology is key to getting there, but even the most advanced next-gen networks like 4G LTE will have to employ multiple innovations, all working together, to feed the public’s voracious appetite for all things digital.
As just about every speaker at this year’s gathering of mobile industry movers and shakers noted, small cells are going to be key. The conference began with a Summit, hosted by the Small Cell Forum, which now has 149 member companies focused on Femtocells, Picocells, Microcells and Metrocells. Confused yet? You’re not alone. Even within the industry, the terminology is still being standardized. For example, in kicking off the summit, Andy Germano, VP of the Forum explained that even the term “small cell” is a misnomer. Since many of these devices are not small (at least not yet) Germano suggested that “low power cells” is a more accurate description.
Terminology aside, the value proposition is clear. One way to dramatically increase the capacity and performance of the mobile network is to simply bring it closer to the user. That can be accomplished by adding small cells (e.g. home femtocells) to the mix. It’s called “network densification.” The denser the network configuration (the more cells that are deployed), the better the results.
Nine out of the top 10 mobile network operators worldwide (as measured by revenue) have already started making small cells available to their customers. According to the Forum, within the next four years, almost 90 percent of all cells will be small cells. While the business opportunity is clear (the Forum projects that it will grow from a $250 million market today to a $2 billion market in 2016), there are challenges to overcome.
To prepare for the possibility of a 1,000-fold increase in data traffic, network operators will need to squeeze all they can out of their existing spectrum. In addition, they’ll have to purchase new spectrum (a finite resource) where possible. Another big challenge is interference. All those small cells will need to be intelligently managed. Factoring all these strategies in the mix, technology companies like Qualcomm, and its partners in the mobile ecosystem, are calling for “a radically different way of acquiring, deploying, operating and managing these resources.”
As described by the industry bigwigs at the 4G World Conference, the whole idea of the mobile network is being reshaped. For example, by the end of 2016, there will be about 91.9 million small cells in the mix. That’s actually good news for consumers since it increases network capacity and ultimately translates to better user experiences. So if you’re one of those people who’d rather not wait for a web page to load or a video to cache, it’s a pretty sure bet that there’s a femtocell somewhere in your future.