PhilMarshall-113NEW ANALYSIS: The mobile industry is at a crossroad. Data traffic demands are driving heterogeneous network architectures with macro, micro, small cells and distributed antenna systems (DAS) that use both licensed and unlicensed radio spectrum. At the same time, mobile networks are evolving to embrace digital services, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), infotainment, and productivity and unified communication services.

Traditional mobile network architectures have been implemented primarily with macro-cells, which operate at power levels that require licensed spectrum to achieve reliable service over large coverage areas. This contrasts with small cells and DAS systems that provide local area coverage and capacity and commonly incorporate both licensed and unlicensed spectrum systems.

As small cells become more widely adopted, the strategic importance of unlicensed spectrum technologies will increase. Although WiFi is prolific, communication service providers (CSP) and their technology vendors including Ericsson, Nokia, Huawei and Qualcomm are developing unlicensed LTE solutions. The value proposition for unlicensed LTE as a complementary or competitive solution to WiFi comes from its superior radio performance, power management and service continuity by sharing the same core network as conventional LTE.

Unlicensed LTE come in various flavours, including LTE-U and License Assisted Access (LAA). LTE-U can be implemented today in select markets including the US, South Korea and India. The additional functionality needed for other markets is provided in LAA, which is planned for 3GPP-Release 13. Both LTE-U and LAA use the radio carrier aggregation functionality of LTE-Advanced (LTE-A) to allow licensed spectrum technologies to aggregate carriers that operate in unlicensed bands.

More recently Qualcomm has been promoting a version of unlicensed LTE called MuLTEFire that does not require licensed spectrum for operations. From a technical perspective, unlicensed LTE is elegant in its simplicity and while it has fuelled some controversy, particularly amongst WiFi advocates, it has been shown to be capable of operating reliably and efficiently alongside WiFi solutions.

The success of unlicensed LTE depends on the mass-market adoption of small cells. While vendors have made impressive progress in improving small-cell form factors and functionality, accelerated small-cell adoption depends on additional strategies to address small-cell site acquisition and backhaul, and advancements in operational automation using technologies like self organising networks (see diagram below). Site acquisition commonly involves zoning approval, landlord negotiations and other legal activities that are costly and time consuming. Backhaul for small cells is complicated by the cost of connectivity relative to the traffic volume typically carried. These challenges can be mitigated with:

• Broader digital service strategies with integrated solutions that increase the utility of small-cells.
• Strategic partnerships with landlords and other outsourced infrastructure providers.
• Network sharing arrangements to defray small-cell costs with multiple CSPs.
• To support network sharing, small cells would require multi-band and multi-service provider functionality similar to that associated with DAS systems, albeit at a much lower cost and presumably with architectures that capitalise on cloud RAN and distributed data center innovations.

Source: Tolaga Research (click to enlarge)

As small cells extend the reach of local area wireless and mobile services, they underpin the broad range of digital services that are starting to transform enterprise operations and consumer lifestyles across the globe. Notable examples include residential security and automation services, and IoT, automation, productivity and unified communication services that are targeted towards enterprises and public institutions.

Digital services are driving new network design priorities to encompass broader service and application functionality. This has a direct impact on small-cell architectures and deployment strategies and creates a variety of commercial opportunities for CSPs, venue owners, outsourced infrastructure providers, application developers and systems integrators.

CSPs have the opportunity to extend the utility of their solutions beyond a narrow focus towards delivering mobile broadband connectivity. To achieve this, CSPs must capitalise partnership opportunities with ecosystem players and focus on areas where they can maintain sustained differentiation. In the context of digital services, we believe that CSPs are uniquely positioned in the areas of service integration and distribution, transaction execution and customer experience management.

Venue owners have the opportunity to improve the intrinsic value of their venues by implementing digital services to enhance on-site experiences. These solutions normally require partnerships with ecosystem players including CSPs and outsourced infrastructure providers to deliver the required capabilities. Notable examples include universities, sports stadiums and theme parks, with infotainment, collaboration, gaming, augmented reality and m-commerce applications.

Outsourced infrastructure providers have the opportunity to increase demand for their infrastructure services and augment these services with capabilities that anticipate network and digital service demands. Notable examples include fiber networks, point-to-multipoint backhaul and front-haul, tower and site infrastructure, and distributed data-center functionality. In addition, outsourced infrastructure providers are well positioned to provide broader systems integration capabilities for targeted digital service applications, such as those associated with enterprises, public institutions and digital-out-of-home (DOOH) experiences.

Application developers can capitalise on digital service environments and wireless and mobile ecosystems to deliver innovative solutions. These players are typically opportunistic in their approach and depend on standardised environments and platforms that provide a means for large-scale adoption.

The confluence of small cells, unlicensed spectrum technologies and digital services will have a tremendous impact on the future requirements for wireless and mobile services. Industry players across the value chain must pay careful attention to these requirements as they forge partnerships and develop technical and commercial strategies in the marketplace.

By Phil Marshall, chief research officer at Tolaga Research

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.