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Summary:

ABI Research estimates there will be more LTE microcells in place than actual LTE base stations by 2014. There’s good reason to believe the forecast: For a heterogeneous network with wide coverage, the number of microcells will have to far outweigh the number of base stations.

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By 2014, you might be using an LTE network, but the signal may not come from the towers we’re so used to seeing. ABI Research estimates that there will be more LTE microcells in place than actual LTE base stations as early as 2014. These network devices typically supplement coverage but only in small areas filled with people, such as malls, large buildings and other highly trafficked areas.

ABI calls for 127,000 LTE small cells sold, compared to 113,000 LTE macrocells, within the next two years, and there’s good reason to believe this will happen. Consumers and enterprise workers alike are fast migrating traditional computer activities to connected mobile devices. But large-scale networks are costly to maintain and expand and are limited by spectrum availability. It’s far less expensive to supplement broad coverage areas with smaller bits of infrastructure targeted at high traffic areas.

My colleague, Kevin Fitchard, suggests this forecast from ABI is a precursor to the coming emergence of the “HetNet”, or heterogeneous network. That model uses a network topology comprised of multiple access technologies: Wi-Fi, picocells, femtocells and traditional macrocell base stations. The idea is that devices can stay on the same network, even when roaming around, regardless of the specific access method. In order for that work, the number of microcells will have to far outweigh the number of base stations, so ABI’s forecast is a step in the right direction.

  1. It seems this sort of heterogeneous, roaming network could be the answer to wireless spectrum saturation? For example, if Verizon where to implement a system similar to FON, using a small portion of the bandwidth of their customers (an opt-in, discounted rate would be necessary) home and business fios connections, folks could be getting normal, seamless coverage in most metro areas but only occasionally using the carrier’s actual wireless bandwidth.

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  2. Actually – Small Cell Forum numbers indicate there’ll be more femtocells than macrocells – across all technologies – before the end of *2012*!

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    1. Kevin Fitchard Friday, March 30, 2012

      I knew you were going to comment on this post, Simon!

      To be fair, most of those femtos are private residential and business cells, not public access, right?

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  3. Things get real interesting when carriers start leaving macrocells in order to move to small cell networks. The rent savings will be huge.

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