While small cells aren’t something that you would likely hear from Steve Jobs when he discusses snazzy new smartphones and apps, small cells play a key part in enabling the smartphone user experience in the future. On the other had you hardly hear a conversation on wireless base station technology anymore without the topic of “small cells” being a part of it. As my colleague, Debbie Shemony, pointed out in her blog post, ‘What is a small cell?,’ despite all of the talk, there is quite a bit of ambiguity around what a small cell is and how to name it. Furthermore, it seems the more we discuss small cells, the more benefits they seem to offer.
Residential femto cells, like the products offered by Sprint and AT&T provided dead zone coverage for users who found the frustrating experience of no cell phone coverage in their own home. These products provide the added benefit to the operator by offloading some of the users data traffic to the users’ existing broadband network. Small cell solutions of varying capacities are also being deployed as “hotzones” to provide service uplift for regions with temporary, large attendance scenarios, such as significant sporting events.
In parallel, small cells are an integral part of the LTE heterogenous network topology, relying on small cells to assist in capacity maximization by leveraging spectral reuse. This is all a part of maximizing the valuable and limited wireless spectrum. As with macro cells, options such as noise floor reduction via interference cancellation techniques and advanced antenna algorithms, as well as sophisticated scheduling algorithms to maximize the number of users at a given spectral time slot. These spectral efficiency boosting features require horsepower to implement, resulting in a small cell base station looking quite different from the consumer solutions deployed today.
One of the big questions that remain: with all of these benefits that small cells have to offer, what will be the first and foremost key driver? What ultimately will sell small cells?
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