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Summary:

Ericsson networks boss Johan Wibergh says the age of dense small networks is about to begin. After years of sorting out the kinks, Ericsson is ready to start shipping its first commercial small cells this summer.

Johan Wibergh Ericsson EVP
photo: Ericsson

For some time we’ve been hearing about small cells and the big capacity boost they’ll bring to mobile data networks, but what we haven’t seen so far are any actual commercial small cell launches. That will change this summer, according to Ericsson EVP and head of networks Johan Wibergh.

Starting his summer Ericsson, the world’s largest mobile infrastructure vendor, will begin shipping its first commercially viable small-cell base stations and remote radio heads, Wibergh said in an interview with GigaOM. He wouldn’t name any particular customers, but in the U.S. at least, it’s not hard to guess. Both Sprint and AT&T have committed to large-scale small cell rollouts starting this year (Ma Bell has already begun experimenting with the technology in Missouri and Wisconsin). Both are major Ericsson customers, as is Verizon Wireless, which has also talked up small cells in the past.

Before we go any further, I should probably explain what Wibergh means when he says small cell. There are a lot of things out there that are called small cells such as home femtocells and distributed antenna networks. Also, carriers have been deploying the building blocks of small cell networks, picocells and microcells, for years. But ultimately those have been coverage solutions, injecting mobile signals into nooks and crannies where big tower-based macrocells can’t reach.

Crowd density dense networkWhat the true small cells networks of our near future will bring is the creation of an alternate yet complimentary high-capacity network. Instead of cramming picocells onto cellular gaps, carriers will mount picocells on lampposts and buildings, right under the gaze of towers with which they’ll share the same airwaves. That’s a hard feat to pull off because any time two signals use the same frequency in the same space, you get interference. For the last several years, Ericsson and rest of the mobile industry have been trying to figure how to mitigate that interference. That’s why it’s taken so long to convert an ordinary picocell into a true small cell.

The industry, however, appears to be the ready, at least it better be. AT&T has promised to have 40,000 small cells transmitting away by the end of 2015. Ericsson probably doesn’t want to leave egg on the face of one of its most important customers.

Wibergh, however, cautioned that small cell technologies still have some evolving to do. At first, small cell network will function much like an extension of the large cell counterparts. The network will pass us from big cell to small and vice versa. The key difference is that when we occupy that small cell we’ll have a lot more bandwidth at our disposal.

But as cellular standards evolve networks will be able to pull off an even neater trick. Our devices will be able to link to multiple cells simultaneously, Wibergh said. The same signals that once interfered with one another will reinforce one another creating an even more powerful connection. High-capacity Wi-Fi will get layered in, creating into a heterogeneous network in which our devices can establish multiple simultaneous connections using multiple radio technologies. What that boils down to is an awful lot of bandwidth.

Density image courtesy of Shutterstock user higyou

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  1. Chris Kapuscinski Tuesday, February 5, 2013

    Could someone clarify “we haven’t seen so far are any actual commercial small cell launches”? I’d be curious to know if Vodafone, Optus, AT&T, and many other operators around the globe along with industry organizations such as Small Cells Forum would agree with this statement.

    1. Hi Chris,

      I did explain just that. The indoor femtocell launches don’t count as small cells in my book regardless of what nomenclature the femto vendors are using.

  2. Kevin, there have been thousands of true small cells deployed in Asia. Take a look at KT, SKT, NTT DoCoMo, and Softbank. They have adapted enterprise femtocells to a public access mode and are now handling some of their capacity with small cells.

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