Small Cell Forum plots a path to 5G with HetNet/SON architecture

A working guide to deploying HetNets now, and a migration path to 5G – this is the double promise of Small Cell Forum’s Release 7.

Release 7 focuses on HetNet and SON (self-optimizing networks), which mobile operators have identified as central capabilities of their next generation networks. Recent research indicates that over 80% of MNOs will deploy non-residential small cells and SON by 2020, as part of a HetNet program, and over 40% will start during 2016.

To ensure such predictions come true, Small Cell Forum believes operators need to be confident about two aspects of HetNet. They need a common workable blueprint which will accelerate roll-out and achieve scale – not another look in the mobile crystal ball, but a set of practical steps, based on input from operators and on real world use cases. In addition, they need to be sure that the choices they make now are future-proofed for migration to 2020 and beyond.

Those are the reasons to publish Release 7 at this critical juncture. “The mobile industry is awash with 5G predictions and roadmaps, but what operators need urgently is a clear and pragmatic process to enhance their current platforms, and prepare the groundwork for the next generation,” said Alan Law – SCF Chair.

The Release provides a detailed technical and commercial blueprint for deploying a HetNet – which the Forum defines as a “multi-x environment – multi-technology, multi-domain, multi-spectrum, multi-operator and multi-vendor”. It provides tools and best practice to ease the path to this multi-x network, and to start implementing technologies which will also be part of 5G.

HetNets and 5G are inherently based around density and small cells and the Forum’s members have unrivalled experience in this area. Over 14m small cells have been deployed to date and roll-out is accelerating with enterprise and urban densification, to support rising data usage and new MNO revenue models.

Mobile Experts shows a 78% growth in non-residential shipments in the year to Q1 2016. That brings new technologies into the mix, such as virtualization, Mobile Edge Computing and neutral host platforms. All these are addressed in Release 7, and all are essential stepping stones towards 5G.

Of particular note, we have released our first detailed definition of how the forum’s existing FAPI platform interface based on a MAC/PHY split can be networked over a common IP transport, which is critical to enable centralisation and virtualisation of small cell functions.

SON is essential to make it practical and economic to deploy huge numbers of cells simply, in current and future HetNets. “At over 14m shipments, the small cell is nothing short of a revolution in network densification, and simply would not have been possible without SON,” said David Orloff – SCF HetNet Operator Champion. “The simplicity of the user experience belies the sophistication of the underlying SON features which ensure the newly deployed cells integrate seamlessly into existing HetNets.”

SON has already enabled the self-install deployment model for residential and enterprise small cells. Now the Forum’s work will take it to the next level, not just enabling large-scale dense networks, but supporting end-to-end self-optimization including backhaul and core.