Whenever anyone brings up LTE, chances are they’re using industry shorthand for a technology called frequency division-LTE. We drop the FD in front of the acronym, because for most people FD-LTE is the only kind of LTE that matters: It’s the technology powering all of North America and Europe’s 4G networks so far as well as many of the ones in Asia.
But FD-LTE has a long-lost cousin that goes by the name of time division-LTE, or TD-LTE. We haven’t heard too much about TD-LTE because it’s only being deployed in a few places, but we’re going to be hearing much more about it as few key global carriers adopt it. And when that time comes, there’s a small startup in Antwerp, Belgium that hopes become a major player in that niche market.
Accelleran is a specialist in an already highly specialized sector. It’s not only focusing on TD-LTE, it’s designing a small cell specifically for TD-LTE networks. Small cells mark a critical stage of transformation in the mobile network: instead of building big macro-cellular systems designed to cover large areas, small cells will provide a dense layer of capacity in the most heavily trafficked places.
Accelleran certainly has experience when it comes to making the tiniest cells. Its founders and executive ranks are basically the core of Thomson/Technicolor’s old femtocell development team. Femtos are the predecessors of small cells, but when 3G femtos failed to find a big audience, Technicolor shut the program down, said Trevor Moore, Accelleran’s CTO.
“There wasn’t really a lot of people with the background in this area,” Moore said in a recent interview. “There just happened to be twelve guys based in Antwerp that did.”
There are plenty of companies big and small focusing on small cells, but as Accelleran quick to point out, those companies are concentrating on the bigger FD-LTE picture. By developing its product early and by focusing on neglected segment of the LTE market, Accelleran hopes to gain an edge over all of those vendors. The company claims to already have close ties to a major infrastructure maker building TD-LTE networks, and also says that its small cells are in trials with carriers in Japan and Europe.
TD-LTE definitely has its proponents. There’s SoftBank in Japan, and there is Clearwire in the U.S. (which is being bought by Sprint, which itself is being bought by SoftBank). There are operators scattered throughout Eastern Europe, India and the Mideast, and then there is the granddaddy of them all, China Mobile. The Chinese giant just started advertising for vendors to build the world’s largest LTE network, and it’s all based on TD technology.
These operators are choosing TD because of their spectrum positions. FD-LTE splits the uplink and downlink over different frequency channels, but carriers like Clearwire and China Mobile don’t have paired spectrum to play with. Instead, they have big unified blocks of airwaves, and as its name implies TD-LTE allows them to divide the downlink and uplink between different time slots on the same frequency band.
As these networks go up, their owners will start weighing the same small cell deployments that AT&T, Verizon and Sprint are planning today. There will be plenty of competition for that business. It’s not as if Ericsson, Nokia, Huawei and the reams of small cell specialty vendors are going to let Accelleran have that business.
But Moore said that Accelleran could definitely make a mark by producing a good small cell early, attracting the interest of the big vendors. Accelleran is claiming that it’s more interested in partnering, but if it’s cell is really that good then an acquisition is probably more likely.