SCF: “We are focused on plotting a roadmap to future platforms and 5G”

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An Interview with Small Cell Forum | TelecomDrive.com

As operators look for increasing network coverage and capacity – deployment of small cell is a great way to achieve more with less effort. It is also paving the way for future-ready network evolution and eventually embracing 5G.

David Orloff, Chair of Small Cell Forum interacts with Zia Askari from TelecomDrive.com on the growing importance of Small Cells and how this technology can shape future evolution of networks.

What are the key priorities for SCF today?

Today it’s widely recognized that small cells are providing the technology required for the densification of today’s networks and services. And in the process, they are also laying the foundations for 5G.

Our work currently focuses on removing barriers to implementing small cells at scale. A recent analyst report argued that urban centers will require 800 per cent more cells by 2022. This transformation of network management and architectures has required broadening the scope of the Forums’ activities and working with a wide range of partners to drive harmonization in all layers of the 5G network.

Of course, as small cells have become a central component in so many different deployment scenarios, so the Forum’s core purpose has diversified. We are focused on facilitating implementation today, while also plotting a roadmap to future platforms and 5G.

You could say that our priorities are multi-layered: setting technical specifications, defining practical processes to ease deployment, and driving services and business models on top of the network itself. We then have the crucial task of joining all those dots: linking all the aspects of densification to create a unified platform, and working closely with industry partners to limit fragmentation as the networks evolve to 5G.

How does the Forum see the growing importance of small cells as far as telecoms is concerned?

In the 10 years since SCF was founded, small cells have grown to become a crucial part of the mobile landscape. The advent of true mobile broadband networks, and ubiquitous smartphones, has placed mobile at the heart of people’s lives and made it increasingly essential to have a strong signal and high data rate in every possible location.

That has led directly to the need for small cells – to fill coverage gaps, boost capacity and enhance quality of experience. Initially this was focused on the home, but now small cells are deployed in cities, remote areas, workplaces and leisure locations, and are starting to appear in vehicles – and even on drones. And 5G will accelerate this activity.

Many uncertainties remain about 5G, but one area of agreement is that it will involve vast numbers of cells. Operators are already planning to use even smaller access points, often in high frequency and flexibly licensed spectrum, to drive density into many areas of their networks. This will accelerate the roll-out of small cells, but if the underlying platform is to remain harmonized, it must also support coexistence with LTE.

How big is the small cell market today? And where it is moving in the coming months?

The market is in a really exciting place right now. It’s driving how we will implement 5G networks. The next couple of years will therefore be intense, with further deployment of dense HetNets and SON, an enhanced role for new technologies like MEC and work in unlicensed spectrum.

  • The global small cell market, including indoor and outdoor small cells, grew 26 per cent year-over-year in 2016, to $1.5 billion
  • Small cell indoor unit shipments outstripped outdoor shipments in 2016, with much operator focus on enterprise and public venue deployments to support consistent indoor voice and data performance
  • Asia Pacific led the regional share of small cell unit shipments with 59 per cent in 2016

(Figures from IHS Markit)

Forecasts indicate that the global small cell market will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.4 per cent from 2016 to 2021, when it will reach $2.2 billion. Outdoor revenue will continue to be higher than that of indoor — despite the much smaller shipment volumes — because outdoor small cells are significantly more expensive on a per-unit basis compared to smaller, and often simpler, indoor units. The drive for densification towards 5G will also drive the continuing growth of shipments.

More important than numbers and forecasts, however, is the value small cells are bringing to operators’ businesses, and mobile users’ experiences, around the world. In 2007, the femtocell was a small access point designed to improve the signal within a home. From those origins, the small cell’s form factor has diversified, with power levels moving both upwards and downwards, and with the flexibility to be mounted in a huge range of locations, from pavement manholes to backpacks to drones.

What kind of trends in this space do you think will help signpost a renewed growth plan for operators?

The integral role that small cells will play in 5G will continue to drive interest and demand.  Today, our members are promoting solutions that include small cell/Wi-Fi integration, SON evolution and automation, virtualization of the small cell layer, driving mass adoption via multi-operator neutral host, ensuring a common approach to service APIs to drive commercialization and the integration of small cells into 5G standards evolution. All of these, plus the real need to create and enable the digitized enterprise, mean that there is plenty of room for growth for small cells.

Small cells can also enhance the operator business model – by enabling new revenues from initiatives including indoor coverage (of venues or enterprises, for example), from IoT with ubiquitous coverage, and from personalized services thanks to MEC and location awareness.

As more and more operators look forward to deploying small cell solutions in order to improve coverage and capacity, how is SCF helping in this regard? Is there any way you handhold such operators?

We are carrier-led, meaning our operator members establish requirements that drive the activities and outputs of our technical groups. Our Release Program has now established business cases and market drivers for all the main use cases, clarifying market needs and addressing barriers to deployment for residential, enterprise, rural & remote, and urban small cells.

This provides a blueprint for operators to follow when deploying small cells in many scenarios, reducing their time to market and their risk. The operator advisory council, and the opportunities to exchange experiences in forum calls and meetings, all help to support operators and help them overcome any deployment barriers – technical, commercial, and also cultural.

This latter is important: small cells require significant cultural changes, including changes to deployment processes and even changes to the way network infrastructure is funded.

How do you involve government regulatory boards or authorities when it comes to accelerating adoption of small cells in the telecom space?

Scaling down the administrative processes involved in small cell deployments, which in turn will expedite the flow of documents through local planning agencies, is a vitally important step on the path to densification. SCF recommends that small cell siting be streamlined where possible to use local infrastructure policies and design guidelines. This is because small cells are similar to access points, and as such should not be considered large pieces of network equipment (unlike macrocells, for example). For this reason no specific planning permissions should be required to roll out such networks. Standard deployment procedures for small cells should be developed and established in all markets to allow for faster deployments and less administrative obstruction. To this end, the Forum and its partner organisations are consulting with regulatory bodies to develop processes that can expedite the deployment process and circumvent bureaucratic bottlenecks which could stifle innovation. We have been collaborating with GSMA and 5G Americas to provide carriers and national and local regulators with the information they need to simplify processes and also underline the economic value of network densification.

Please share with us some of the core activities that SCF is undertaking in order to develop the overall small cell ecosystem

As networks continue to densify and evolve, the Forum is becoming an increasingly vital hub for industry activity around densification and 5G. It is gathering many inputs from a wide range of members and partner organizations, and is starting to coordinate these to create a unified output which will underpin future platforms. These inputs come from operators, our membership, enterprise customers, and industry partnerships. The industry will continue to look to Small Cell Forum for guidelines, business models, processes, and technology understanding to ensure a successful evolution toward hyperdense networks and 5G.

SCF has clearly identified the aspects of the 5G platform where it can make a real contribution, based on its core knowledge and experience. These aspects define the scope of the 5G roadmap and work program.

SCF believes 5G will be characterized by:

  • hyperdense zones of capacity
  • virtualization
  • flexibility to harness many technologies and spectrum bands
  • edge computing and distributed cloud
  • intelligent automation
  • optimal connectivity for many different vertical and IoT services

This year, our priorities include:

  1. Responding to specific needs of Enterprise verticals
  2. Elaborating new commercial models for ownership and operations
  3. Developing technical and commercial models for rural and remote connectivity
  4. Communicating scalable, repeatable deployment processes
  5. Defining technology needed for densification and to drive ecosystem support
  6. Supporting open & interoperable standards to healthy unfragmented ecosystem
  7. Driving industry consensus on the prioritised sequence of investments needed to take today’s networks into the 5G era