BROADBAND WORLD FORUM 2015, LONDON: Mansoor Hanif, director of RAN for UK market leader EE, said that the company had “held back a little” on its small cells development, while also sharing his view of the potential for balloons and drones in the mobile network.
The executive said that while small cells offer real benefits in terms of capacity boosting, in terms of delivering high-speed services “the small cell ecosystem is a little bit behind the macro”.
“It is catching up, but it has been behind, and therefore you’ve got to make a tough call, because you won’t get the homogenous speeds across the network. You will increase the capacity, but that’s why to be honest we’ve held back a little from small cells,” he said.
While acknowledging that speed isn’t the be-all and end-all for mobile networks, Hanif said that customers “use speed as a health check” of the network. “And that’s not going to go away. If your customer is using [app] Speedtest to check how fast your network is, you can’t get away from that.”
But offering customers a consistent speed performance isn’t the only challenge with small cells – there are also deployment challenges and issues.
“We’ve held back on that because of the uncertainty on the 5G spectrum – if you rollout a lot of small cells in urban areas – and we’re talking high volumes here, thousands – I don’t want to be ripping them out in five years when we come out with new spectrum for 5G. As soon as we have enough confidence that you can either tune those radio transmitters to any frequency, or we have clarity what spectrum that will be, we will start rolling out those,” he said.
And Hanif also mooted the potential of small cells to replace “expensive” DAS (distributed antenna system) technology.
The executive described the combination of LTE on licensed and unlicensed spectrum (Licence Assisted Access) as a “very interesting development”, with the caveat that “I don’t think you can do that with the guaranteed quality of service you get over the LTE spectrum”.
“We see it as a secondary technology, and the primary technology which can deliver almost everything is pure LTE and LTE-Advanced. We are really keen on reliability and quality, and having the capability to manage your own spectrum and the interference within that is absolutely vital to us, and you can’t do that with public spectrum in all cases,” he said.
Balloons and drones
Hanif also talked about the company’s view of “air masts”, using technologies such as balloons and drones to provide coverage in remote areas that cannot be addressed efficiently using existing technologies.
“We hope to trial a balloon based repeater for 4G and 3G in the highlands of Scotland within the next six months. We’re not going to make it ourselves, we’re going to borrow it from another operator that has already got it live,” he said.
The move comes as Google begins ramping up its Loon efforts which, while previously focused on emerging markets, are set to be extended as the technology reaches maturity. And Google is courting mobile operators to position Loon as a complement, rather than competition, to existing deployments.
“We are also actively working with some of the people in the conference next door [The Commercial UAV Show] to see if we can miniaturise base stations small enough to get the payload low enough to make it economical. But that’s a different story.”