Ericsson is attempting to shake up the much-hyped small cell market with launch of its “Radio Dot System,” although commercial availability is about a year away.

The Swedish network vendor has unveiled a small cell system that it claims can drastically reduce the cost of indoor coverage while offering the same functionality provided by the macro mobile network.

johan_wibergh_175x175“There is an industry problem in that a high-end indoor solution, such as a distributed antenna system (DAS) – which gives a fairly good performance – is costly and so rollouts have been limited,” Johan Wibergh (pictured, left), head of networks at Ericsson, told Mobile World Live. “Pico base stations, on the other hand, while cheaper, are difficult to roll out with the same quality and functionality [as the macro network].”

Wibergh reckons Ericsson has cracked the problem with its Radio Dot System, a small disc measuring 10cm in width and weighing 300 grams.

The result of two years research and development, and incorporating 14 patents, the system comprises what Ericsson calls a “revolutionary” lightweight antenna element, or “dot”, which delivers the same user experience – in terms of both capacity and features — as a macro base station. The antenna range, says Ericsson, is between 500 and 800 square metres in typical deployments.

“It is 70 per cent cheaper than DAS,” claimed Wibergh. “We have completely redefined the network and we expect our competitors will follow.”

While a DAS deployment typically involves installing a macro base station in the basement, with new and expensive cabling required, the dot system is linked with standard internet LAN cables typically found already in enterprise buildings – (CAT 5/6/7) – which, in turn, is linked to a macro base station.

As new LTE Releases appear – which can include new functions, such as carrier aggregation – Ericsson’s networks boss emphasises that the dot system can be upgraded simultaneously with the macro network using the same software.

There is also close coordination with Ericsson’s Wi-Fi portfolio, which allows real-time traffic steering between Wi-Fi and 3GPP networks to make sure the customer has the best connection.

Networks using non-Ericsson macro equipment, added Wibergh, can also reap the installation and upgrade benefits of the dot system, although he did suggest there might be some limits in functionality in such a scenario.

The system, however, is not expected to be commercially available until Q3 or Q4 2014. Operator trials, said Wibergh, are due to start in the second quarter next year.

Although Ericsson does not disclose any operator names, it seems likely AT&T will be among those trialling the system.

Kris Rinne, SVP of architecture and planning at AT&T, is quoted in the Ericsson press release as saying small cells are a key component of the operator’s Project VIP network enhancement program.

“Delivering a great wireless experience indoors can present both technical and logistical challenges,” she said. “A solution like the Ericsson Radio Dot System gives AT&T another tool to choose from in its next-generation toolkit.”

Ken Rehbehn, a Yankee Group principal analyst, also gave a favourable quote.

“Sleek form factors that focus radio capability to solve the indoor deployment challenge in a fresh and compelling way will be welcomed into a wide variety of business and office venues,” he said. “Ericsson Radio Dot System leverages existing indoor wire facilities to reduce installation hurdles and cost, and because it builds on Ericsson standard radio architecture, it provides an extensive feature set without compromising future evolution.”

The small cell equipment market is becoming increasingly competitive, with traditional macro network vendors such as Ericsson, Nokia Siemens Networks and Alcatel-Lucent battling smaller players targeting the enterprise space, such as SpiderCloud.