Small Cell Forum pushes progress beyond femtocells

The group is showcasing advances by several vendors with smaller cellular radios

The recently renamed Small Cell Forum gathered several vendors at Mobile World Congress on Tuesday to spotlight advances they are announcing this week in smaller mobile-network gear.

New developments in small cells, which are now being combined with Wi-Fi access points and beefed up for enterprise duty, have been coming in from all corners with the approach of this week's show. Among the developments was a name change by the hosts of the Tuesday morning event from Femto Forum to Small Cell Forum. The group said the change reflected the broadening of the market for smaller-scale mobile gear.

Femtocells, originally designed for use in homes with installation by the subscriber, are now blurring into more robust small cells and Wi-Fi access points -- sometimes combined in one unit. The new categories of gear are more likely to be set up by carriers themselves to cover an indoor area or a high-density public space. Because they allow carriers to essentially reuse their own spectrum in local areas, these infrastructure pieces are drawing interest from service providers to deliver more capacity, according to the Forum.

There are now 40 publicized commercial deployments of femtocells around the world, and a total of 52 operators have committed to using such devices, according to a report by Informa Telecoms & Media released on Tuesday. The Small Cell Forum commissioned the report. Several of the deployments represent hundreds of thousands of cells each, and AT&T and Sprint Nextel both have 500,000 or more femtocells in customers' hands, said Simon Saunders, chairman of the Small Cell Forum.

By next year, Saunders predicted, there will be more small cells than macro cells installed around the world. That partly reflects the larger coverage area of a macro cell, which typically covers a neighborhood or more, compared with one home or part of an office for small cells. But some observers believe small cells may start to truly dominate networks in some areas, encroaching on the larger base stations.

The Forum sees small cells as opening up a new model for the mobile infrastructure industry with interoperability among network elements and the components that go into them. It has published APIs (application programming interfaces) for small cells with LTE (Long-Term Evolution), which have been adopted by 17 component vendors, including Texas Instruments, Broadcom and Mindspeed, Saunders said. The first commercial LTE small cells are now live on SK Telecom's network in South Korea, Saunders said.

The APIs create a consistent interface among the various components in a cell, including the radio, baseband chip and modem, so manufacturers can pick and choose among parts from different vendors, Saunders said. This hasn't been possible for traditional macro cells or picocells, where some interfaces have been proprietary and defined by individual manufacturers, he said. The new generation of small cells have a different scale.

"Macro cells only get produced in their tens or hundreds of thousands, and right from the beginning, we've known we needed to add triple zeros to that in the world of femtocells," Saunders said. "It becomes proportionally more important to take the steps to allow reusability of parts."

Interoperability extends to the pieces in the network as a whole, he said, so small cells, gateways, and management systems from different vendors can interoperate, Saunders said.

"We are democratizing mobile networks," Saunders said. He said carriers asked the Forum to help make it possible to mix gear from different vendors.

The Forum also introduced a white paper in which it provides guidelines for integrating small cells and Wi-Fi hotspots in homes, businesses and urban areas. Carriers that do so can boost available capacity and can assign different functions to each type of radio, such as signaling and encryption and Wi-Fi for fast data delivery. The blending of Wi-Fi and cellular network radios is a big trend at this week's show, with Ericsson, ip.access, Ruckus Wireless and other vendors announcing new products.

In addition, the Forum announced it had formed a developer community to help foster applications that take advantage of the capabilities of small cells, including location and presence information. Working with software platform provider Aepona, the Forum has created a suite of developer resources.

Eight vendors participated in the event at the Forum's booth at Mobile World Congress, including Cisco Systems, Alcatel-Lucent, ip.access and Ubiquisys. Cisco was due to announce new technologies for heterogeneous networks later on Tuesday.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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