Last month the Small Cells World Summit (SCWS) celebrated its 10th anniversary. This is the flagship global event for the small cells ecosystem. The industry began with the development of femtocells, mostly low cost units for improving cellular coverage in homes. The scope of this annual conference has since expanded to embrace Wi-Fi and DAS, and this year’s event ran over 4 days including a day focussed on Mobile Edge Computing (MEC).
The major challenge for MNOs is densification, as mobile traffic continues to grow exponentially whilst the amount of available spectrum doesn’t. An estimated 80% of mobile traffic is consumed indoors, and outside-in solutions suffer from poor spectrum efficiency which is a major issue in high traffic areas such as dense urban environments.
Small cells would seem to be the ideal solution but still lack widespread deployment, so what’s the problem? Some of the challenges were outlined in a previous TechTalk article. Two further issues were highlighted at SCWS. Firstly small cells are predominantly single operator devices, so enterprises would need multiple sets of infrastructure to provide coverage and capacity for all users. Secondly MNOs have not fully embraced small cells as an option. Planning is often focussed on macros, whilst in-building solutions are developed by “special projects” teams which don’t have the capacity to cope with the huge demand from enterprises. Moreover MNOs have been reluctant to support neutral host solutions, although EE and O2 both stated on one of the panels that they were now beginning to see them as win-win for the MNO and the host, provided the appropriate SLA’s were in place.
MulteFire is a new LTE-based technology which burst onto the scene 6 months ago when Qualcomm and Nokia founded the MulteFire Alliance, and is being promoted as a neutral host small cells solution. It uses unlicensed spectrum for “LTE-like performance with Wi-Fi-like simplicity”, and claims better performance, range, security and mobility than Wi-Fi. Crucially however it can coexist with Wi-Fi since it uses listen-before-talk to handle contention.
One of the key advantages of MulteFire over licensed spectrum solutions is that a single small cell will be able to accommodate users from all MNOs and MVNOs, making multi-operator deployments more cost effective for enterprises. The Alliance describes it as “The natural path to LTE-based neutral hosts”.
So is MulteFire an iPhone moment? Well it’s very early days and there are some significant barriers to be overcome, including roaming to/from the wide area LTE network. Nevertheless the Alliance has shrewdly offered three different modes of operation including a stand-alone mode, to allow some use cases to get started. Perhaps these test cases will convince MNOs of the commercial and operational viability of small cells. The Alliance is certainly confident that MulteFire equipment, initially for IoT applications, will be available by the end of 2016. Watch this space.
Mike Kennett, Wireless Consultant