Are small cells the answer to the Internet of Things spectrum crunch?
Recently, the technology industry has been abuzz with talk about the Internet of Things (IoT), a term used to describe an ecosystem of consumer electronics and appliances that have the ability to connect to the network and communicate with one another. Many pundits and even technology-makers themselves are preparing for major changes to information and communications infrastructure as literally billions of IoT devices become “connected.” In fact, IDC analysts predict that by the end of 2020 alone, there will be an installed base of 212 billion ‘things’ connected, 30.1 billion of which will be connected ‘things’.
While those forecasts are impressive, the optimism for market growth stemming from the positive impact IoT devices is also tempered with concern over how the massive amounts of data collected by these devices will be managed across the network. Moving forward, that concern will only intensify, and with good reason.
The IoT era will bring the realization of scenarios like vehicles talking to embedded monitors positioned along roadways to better route traffic, and home appliances connecting to the smart grid to improve their efficiency and reliability. But that’s only part of the story. Those connected devices will further burden our already strained networks, augmenting the existing spectrum “crunch.” This raises a number of compelling questions: With society consuming ever more content on an increasing number of devices, how will IT managers and data centers manage the increased network congestion and assure consumers mobile access? And, how will service providers address this IoT spectrum crunch?
While there is no ‘bandwidth panacea’ that can cure all spectrum ills, there are a number of solutions to this dilemma, including one that’s beginning to see traction: Small cells. These low-power radio access points support voice, video and data services over a range of several meters up to three kilometers and include femtocells, picocells and microcells. When used in combination with other network management technologies such as more efficient macrocells and Wi-Fi offloading, small cells provide better cellular and wireless coverage for end users, while at the same time helping service providers better manage data traffic.
But how exactly do small cells eliminate the spectrum crunch? The answer lies in their wireless radios, which use local wireless frequency so as to not interfere with larger base stations. By doing so, the radios act as “access points” that help seamlessly offload data traffic from cellular to local wireless networks, providing relatively affordable relief to the regular carrier networks. Offloading the traffic allows everyone in the area to experience better connectivity, not only improving the user’s experience in home, office or public spaces, but also reducing churn and helping operators gain market share.
Because of this, operators have been deploying femtocells in homes to extend coverage where access is limited or unavailable. Enterprise/indoor cells are also well-suited for operator deployments: Picocells, for example, deliver capacity into the network to address hot-spot demand from small businesses and retail applications. Much like a picocell, microcells provide coverage to a limited area, although over a larger range (typically three kilometers wide) and outdoors. They deliver capacity to users in high-density public spaces such as a mall, stadium, hotel, or transportation hub.
With the emergence of the IoT era and the increased pressure on networks it brings through increased data traffic and cellular data rates, service providers will more and more begin turning to Ethernet and indoor, rural and outdoor small cells to increase cellular network performance (Figure 1). That’s not to say there won’t be challenges ahead.
In rural environments, small cells face a lack of backhaul and power supply, as well as phones with high velocities. Maintaining calls along rural roads will continue to be challenging. In metro environments, issues confronting outdoor small cells are no less daunting. Here they face the most demanding customers, lack of suitable sites, many phones with different velocities, and interference from macro small cells.
Some of these challenges can be overcome through a patchwork of diverse wireless data technologies cobbled together to provide the bandwidth mobile devices need by snatching bits and bytes from multiple technologies. These heterogeneous networks (HetNets) will work over a wide range of licensed (3G, LTE) and unlicensed (802.11x) spectrum and combine macro cells, pico/small cells, and residential access points (femtocells).
Also important will be the development of key technologies for small cells; that is, the building blocks that will enable 3G/LTE/Wi-Fi for wireless access and PoE/Cable/PON/Wireless for the backhaul. This would include things like residential small cell SoCs that integrate an RF transceiver with a baseband modem, dual-mode small cell SoCs for the enterprise and metropolitan 3G/LTE small cell networks, and even advanced platforms for small cell base stations integrating backhaul. All of these will be critical to keeping people connected in the IoT era.
At the end of the day, no one operator or technology company can solve all of these challenges. But as we work together to improve connectivity for all citizens, there’s a major opportunity—to the tune $22 billion by 20161—to develop and deploy small cell technology. We’re just getting started.
Greg Fischer serves as Senior Vice President & General Manager of Broadband Carrier Access at Broadcom Corporation. In this role he is responsible for driving Broadcom's vision for carrier access semiconductor solutions, enabling broadband services to and throughout the home, with end products and end markets focused on providing complete xDSL and FTTx solutions for advanced central office (CO) and customer premises equipment (CPE) applications.
Prior to Broadcom Fischer served in a variety of executive various roles with Conexant Systems, a semiconductor manufacturer, including Vice President of Marketing, and Vice President & General Manager of the Video Products Group. Fischer holds a B.S.E.E. degree from the Milwaukee School of Engineering and an M.B.A. from University of Iowa.