MANY telcos in South-East Asia are now faced with the challenge of expanding their network capacity in order to meet the demands of a growing subscriber base. One practical way of doing so, according to Alcatel-Lucent, is through the use of small cells.
“In the wireless industry, we have been traditionally building networks for voice communications. But this network now carries a lot of other data and it’s at breaking point,” says Michael J. Schabel, vice-president of the wireless division at Alcatel-Lucent.
“LTE (long-term evolution wireless communication) is a very important first step to add scalability to wireless networks, but it is not enough to handle future demands. The only way it will scale is to densify the network with small cells and to create many more nodes.”
No small matter
A network is densified by replacing a large base station with several small cells instead.
These small cells, which are roughly the size of shoe boxes, run on low radio frequencies and are subject to less interference. They are said to be easier to deploy and maintain, and can provide operators with better network capacity and coverage, especially in densely populated areas.
Consequently, small cells are said to be able to offer a better end user experience due to lower latency for data services.
“If you plan properly, you can reduce the total cost of ownership for the network by around 30% to 50% (through the use of small cells),” Schabel says. “The value that it (small cells) provides is differentiated quality of service for customers. It enables every subscriber within a dense area to have access to the high speed wireless network.”
In addition, he says that small cells makes it possible for telcos to set up Internet connectivity in places where it had previously not been feasible to do so.
“Small cells can be used for rural areas. Due to the smaller size and lower cost of these products (as compared to building a traditional base station), it opens up more locations where operators can bring their networks closer to their customers,” explains Schabel.
On average, he shares that small cells cost around US$500 (RM1,620) to US$1,000 (RM3,240) apiece in the enterprise market segment.
“I think Malaysia is one of the early adopters of this technology (within South-East Asia),” says Ric Clark, vice-president of strategy and public affairs at Alcatel-Lucent Asia Pacific.
He feels that this is most likely due to the high smartphone penetration rate within the region.
“A combination of small cells and 4G technology like LTE is definitely required for dense urban environments such as Kuala Lumpur,” says Clark.
However, Schabel points out that small cells need not only be used exclusively for 4G networks alone. In fact, he believes they are a timely solution for Malaysian telcos who are in the midst of transitioning from their existing 3G to 4G networks.
“3G networks often become unbearably congested while an operator is trying to build their 4G networks. So small cells can help relieve that macro network while the 4G networks are being built,” he says.
Although Alcatel-Lucent has already been offering technology in small cells commercially for about five to six years now, Schabel says it is still a relatively new concept for many telcos across the globe and that there are still several challenges for them to overcome.
One of the issues is that telcos themselves are still getting comfortable with the concept of a network that is powered by small cells.
Besides that, Schabel says that telcos will also need to think about how to automate small cells network, also known as a self-organising networks (SONs).
“This is a new challenge for how networks are operated. It is something that will take time to understand, build and implement,” he explains.
Lastly, Schabel says telcos will need to plan how to acquire suitable sites for installing small cells.
“You will have to do a lot of work with (local) governments for zoning and licensing. These are things that wireless network operators typically don’t have to worry about for their macro networks,” Schabel says.
Nevertheless, he feels that the future is bright for small cells.
“The market for these solutions is really developing. There’s a lot of effort (in Alcatel-Lucent) going into how to mature these solutions with operators. Our objective for 2013 and 2014 is to make small cells easy to implement,” says Schabel.
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