Thinking Big about Getting Small: HetNet Deployment Considerations

By TMCnet Special Guest
Ron Hill
  |  November 05, 2013

According to Pew (News - Alert) Research, 56 percent of adults now have smartphones. More surprising, though, is that 37 percent of teens now have these devices and are using them as the primary mechanism to access the Internet and communicate – via text and increasingly video – with their peers. Given that this demographic typically foreshadows how new tools will be used, many believe there is no end in sight for the current exponential surge in data traffic. The question becomes, is the telecommunications network ready to handle this type of growth?

To keep pace with this growth, the industry is shifting away from legacy network designs and architectures that were originally built for voice, as these networks were simply not designed to handle today’s bandwidth-intensive customer applications and the resulting wireless traffic tsunami. 

For network operators, the game has changed from providing coverage to finding ways to increase capacity and improve the overall subscriber experience. Adding to the challenge is the limited amount of spectrum currently available for operators, which makes this goal significantly more daunting. As a result, operators are striving to seamlessly put users on the most efficient network technology capable of supporting the specific applications they are using (i.e., not surprisingly, high-definition streaming video is more efficiently delivered over 4G/Wi-Fi than 2G/3G technologies).

As far as subscribers are concerned, they just want it to work – every application, every day and everywhere. They have little tolerance for network service interruptions, and research shows quality of experience as a key factor in choosing between carriers and ongoing customer loyalty. This volatility adds increased pressure on operators that risk losing subscriber revenue due to poor network performance.

What’s Needed

There is no single, one-size fits all solution to this challenge; tomorrow’s networks will employ multiple types of access technologies, which will be determined by how the network is being used in a given area. Dense urban areas will have completely different needs than suburban or rural areas. Future networks will be multi-layer, multi-band and multi-technology, collectively forming the building blocks of what is becoming known in the industry as a heterogeneous Network. These hetnets may include a combination of macro, small cell (micro, pico, femto), DAS and Wi-Fi technologies all seamlessly working together with self-organizing/self-optimizing/self-healing capabilities. 

However, the migration toward hetnet architectures does not spell the end of the legacy macro networks. In fact, it’s just the opposite; in the hetnet model they still play an important role. Most major operators expect to significantly increase the number of macro sites deployed in their networks over the next several years. Operators realize, however, that small cell technologies can be extremely useful in making more efficient use of existing spectrum while also providing additional capacity in those areas consistently experiencing heavy traffic and bandwidth limitations.

In addition to improving the subscriber experience and achieving better utilization of available spectrum, small cells adoption also provides operators with several other benefits more closely aligned with the bottom line. Specifically, when you consider that a typical carrier spends significantly higher portion of its budget on opex, it stands to reason that achieving operational savings is a key objective. To that point, many in the industry believe that operators can experience anywhere between 38 percent and 45 percent in total cost of ownership savings by deploying small cells in their networks. These savings are realized by reducing the cost of small cell sand its deployment by using self-organizing networking’s plug-and-play capabilities, and by reductions in both site rental and backhaul costs.

Market Traction

By shifting toward hetnet architectures, service providers are also adding a significant number of nodes to the network in an attempt to improve the signal quality and the subscriber experience by moving antennas as close to the user as possible. Many industry observers believe this shift has the potential to more than double the size of today’s networks over the next few years.

AT&T (News - Alert) has already successfully deployed small cells in its network, and has said publicly that over the next three years it plans to deploy 40,000 additional small cells across its network in areas with existing wireless network limitations with a focus on providing enhanced coverage to customers where it is needed most.

Verizon has also stated that it will deploy small cell technology as part of its existing LTE (News - Alert) network, primarily to enhance capacity and coverage in complement to its existing deployments of distributed antenna systems. Sprint has also endorsed small cells as a future direction, particularly for macro network traffic offload. According to Informa Telecoms & Media (News - Alert), Small Cells will make up almost 90 percent of all base stations by 2016.

Just think about what that will mean, not only in terms of scale, but also in terms of the complexity of these networks.

Big Considerations

Don’t be confused by the nomenclature – the solution may be small, but the deployment of small cell networks will be anything but trivial.

While macro sites (such as cell towers) are much larger and require considerably more power and bandwidth than small cell networks, their deployment has become fairly standard – almost cookie-cutter – as many of the challenges and kinks of deployment have been worked out over time. Conversely, in these early days of small cell deployments, there are considerably more variables and challenges to consider, a fact that is only exacerbated by the sheer volume and rapid deployment schedules that operators are targeting.

While never easy, macro sites have been fairly consistent in terms of where they are deployed – predominantly outside, and normally located on a tower or rooftop. With the introduction of small cells, that deployment predictability goes away. They can be deployed virtually anywhere – inside, outside, on walls, on lamp poles, etc. As a result of this variability, and the vast number of network elements involved, the support services associated with these deployments become all the more complex, and all the more critical.

Adding additional complexity from a network design and planning perspective, small cell coverage is measured in feet in contrast to macro deployments, which are measured in miles. As a result, even minor adjustments in location can significantly impact coverage and quality – not to mention the fact that the process has to be iteratively repeated dozens of times within a given objective area to get the best results.

Choose Wisely

While operators are responsible for the overall network strategy, budget and deployment timeline for nationwide rollouts, many large operators have developed a reliance on integration partners to ensure the successful and timely deployment of next-generation networks. 

Just like no two hetnet deployments will be identical, these integration and deployment partners vary widely in terms of the solutions they offer, the values they subscribe to, and their ability to manage large-scale projects with fixed deadlines and budgets. Some specialize on the construction and engineering side, while others are capable of delivering higher-level services in the areas of network design, integration and maintenance. Very few, however, possess the complete range of end-to-end capabilities that are needed to successfully deliver the large-scale projects service providers are currently rolling out. 

Carriers are looking for partners that possess a deep understanding of their legacy networks as well as today’s IP networks, as integration and interoperability between all these layers will be a key requirement for the foreseeable future. Another consideration is the partner’s neutrality in terms of the technology or the vendor utilized in the deployment, as having the flexibility to consider other solutions and approaches can sometimes mean the difference between success and failure when deployments move from the lab to the real world.

While it may seem crystal clear where the industry is headed in terms of technology, true success will be determined by a host of factors including network planning, design and deployment. As such, operators will need to ensure that they have chosen both the right technology andthe right partners. With a sea of connected consumers that is growing every day – and a rising tide of traffic – failure to choose correctly in both areas could determine whether the operator sinks or swims.

Ron Hill is president and CEO, at Goodman Networks (News - Alert) (www.goodmannetworks.com).

Edited by Stefania Viscusi