Why Are We Still Talking About Small Cells?


While MWC20 Barcelona was cancelled, the planned product launches and innovation showcases were never going to simply disappear, which is why my GSMA Intelligence team has been releasing a set of market updates, writes PETER JARICH.

We’re calling the series Unwrapped because there’s nothing to actually wrap-up. Clever, eh?

The process behind these analyses is straightforward. Announcements from operators, suppliers and everyone across the ecosystem are closely tracked (starting from the beginning of February to the beginning of March). Themes and messages are then identified within the context of broad market segments like smartphones, enterprise and IoT, and network transformation. With that last one, we settled on three key messages: the continuing move towards OpenRAN (if not virtual RAN); edge networking business versus technology innovation; and network operations model innovation. One market segment, and the evolution within it, just failed to make the cut: small cells.

Based on operator priorities and views, leaving small cells off the list would seem to make sense: they trail all other key technologies in terms of expected RoI. Regardless, it wasn’t an easy decision to leave small cells out of the analysis, if only because the last month saw no shortage of announcements and innovations on the small cell front, including: Radio Dot additions from Ericsson; Verizon’s commitment to roll out five-times more of them in 2020 than it did in 2019; the Small Cell Forum’s automation roadmap; and Qualcomm’s commercial FSM100xx momentum.

And what do they all tell us?

Constantly evolving definitions

Back when femtocells were first introduced, the definition of a small cell was fairly clear: a self-contained, low-power, low-capacity base station. Then we added enterprise editions with higher power and capacity. Then, new architectures splitting baseband and radio for indoor deployments were introduced, some leveraging macro cell baseband assets. The result was a very fluid definition of what a small cell is circa 2020. This was evident from Qualcomm’s FSM100xx references. Originally positioned as a small cell platform, it’s now being pitched as something which supports “small cell and remote radio head infrastructure.” Of course, the fact that the Small Cell Forum now refers to “small cell networks” versus “small cells” reflects the same reality.

Scaling the business

On the topic of that Small Cell Forum automation roadmap, there’s an important message which could easily be obscured by the paper’s technical focus on optimisation and orchestration: namely that scaling small cell networks isn’t something which can be done manually. Instead, it’s a process requiring a substantial amount of automation. And because the small cell space has evolved to include consumer femtocells, enterprise small cells, distributed and virtualised architectures, the notion of automation cannot live in a vacuum, but needs to take an end-to-end view.

mmWave raises the stakes

Discussing the requirements for scaling small cell networks might seem like a waste of time without clear indications operators were actually looking to do so. This is only partly accurate. Like so many technologies, operators need to see a mature ecosystem before getting serious about planning and investment. In this case, however, it’s also clear that operators are moving forward on deployments, with Verizon tying an aggressive small cell deployment plan to its mmWave 5G expansion. The link between mmWave and small cells is fairly obvious: physics dictates coverage is generally limited. And, while US operators may be more active with mmWave deployment than those in other regions, high-band spectrum allocations (above 6GHz) are taking place around the globe. Not surprisingly, mmWave deployment is the second-highest 5G RAN investment priority per a GSMA Intelligence survey of operators around the world.

5G raises the stakes

If mmWave deployment is the number two 5G RAN investment priority for operators, you’re probably asking yourself an obvious question. What’s the top priority?

Smart question. The answer: in-building 5G coverage.

While it might seem surprising, it aligns with everything the market has been talking about in terms of 5G support for society-wide digital transformation and enterprise use cases. And it’s reflected in small cell portfolio additions (from Ericsson or its competitors), new in-building architectures and commercial momentum, and roadmaps for scaling small cells. To say that executing on 5G promises will require network densification is not controversial: it has become a well-accepted argument and is thoroughly baked into our own 5G capex forecasts. Fundamentally, however, densification involves small cells in some form.

  • Peter Jarich is head of GSMA Intelligence.
  • Editor’s Note: The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.

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