The explosion in wireless data services has been well documented in the last year. Several operators have been lambasted publicly because popular smartphones and data-intensive applications are exposing capacity bottlenecks in large metropolitan markets.
Could the solution for this big problem lay with very small cell sites?
The next big thing in wireless is leveraging small cell technology: picocells, femtocells and distributed antenna systems (DAS). Many operators have begun showcasing and implementing small-cell sites to improve network coverage, without the obstructive views and placement restrictions involved with erecting rooftop macro cells.
It seems a no-brainer to expand a network through small cells that require hardware the size of a wireless router to implement, but deliver improved capacity for calls and data traffic. Maravedis, an analyst firm that focuses on 4G and broadband wireless technologies and markets, says small cells play a pivotal role in solving the capacity dilemma.
Why DAS Will Win
Small cells are vital to the growth of wireless, but they are not created equal. I believe that in most cases, the small cell technology of choice will be DAS. Why? DAS uses a network of compact antenna nodes connected to a common source to provide wireless service within a geographic area or structure. It opens the door to almost unlimited wireless bandwidth inside a building or on a campus. It’s device- and protocol-agnostic, i.e., future-proof. It can handle 2G and 3G technologies, as well as newer 4G protocols, and future communications technologies.
The focus on DAS solutions is growing, driven by communications providers wanting to maximize coverage, improve call quality and increase capacity regardless of location. DAS and its fiber infrastructure are flexible, expandable and allow for adoption at a variety of price points, installation sizes and deployment models. And, when built as a neutral host, outdoor DAS antennas can be a shared and leased infrastructure, reducing capital outlay for carriers.
Furthering the DAS case are factors weighing against other small-cell options. Adding new macro base stations has been the traditional way of creating new mobile capacity, but macro cell locations are becoming harder to acquire and new base station costs are prohibitive, reports market research firm In-Stat’s Cellular Infrastructure Service. In its May 2011 report, “DAS Worldwide – To Fill in the Gaps report,” the firm forecast that by 2012 the value for all DAS projects in North America, with the exception of metro-area outdoor DAS, will near $2 billion, and that total global DAS revenue will surpass $13 billion in 2015.
Local Internet service providers (ISPs) continue to resist adoption of femtocells because they bear the backhaul cost of mobile operators without compensation. This has led to data usage caps or the complete blocking of femtocell data traffic by some ISPs. Large-scale femtocell adoption, outside of mobile operators that provide ISP services, depends upon the new business models where the ISP is compensated for the data transported. And picocells, on the outdoor side, require zoning permissions, which causes delays.
DAS tackles the network growth and capacity issues with several delivery models, but systems ultimately fall into two markets: in-building and outdoor.
In-building solutions provide immediate remedies for captive audiences and help carriers realize immediate returns by solidifying their coverage and capacity improvements to that audience. Indoor DAS also provides the offload from the macro network that the same carriers are desperately trying to manage.
Seventy-five percent of all data sessions are initiated indoors. The market for indoor data and capacity solutions, such as DAS, is expected to explode and see huge investment in the coming years. In the U.S. alone, billions of square feet of office space in large metropolitan areas beg for coverage. While many indoor DAS investments come from wireless operators, driven by large concentrated handset deals, infrastructure owners and third parties are increasingly seeing benefits and making their own investments. For instance, property management companies are installing DAS systems within tall offices to ensure that coverage above the 10th floor does not have interference. It’s a selling point.
Ataches to existing utilities, like streetlights or overhead utility poles, are aesthetically pleasing and do not require new zoning. This is particularly appealing to suburban communities happy to gain coverage nearly invisibly. Within cities, O-DAS supply groups become a capacity management tool, addressing high demand and peak usage.
In-Stat expects that by 2012, the value for all DAS projects in North America, with the exception of metro area outdoor DAS, will near $2 billion and that total global revenue from DAS will surpass $13 billion in 2015. Mobile Experts LLC estimates that the North American market for in-building wireless solutions alone will exceed $500M by 2014. While few public companies report on DAS revenues, indoor and outdoor DAS growth can be measured to some extent by the device growth reported recently by Powerwave, a DAS market leader, which reported 23% growth in 2010, over 2009, indicating the market is indeed thriving.
Ready to Roll?
With any new technology, adoption faces hiccups.
Many carriers are concerned that DAS may not be commercially ready. Even if the technology is mature enough, they may not understand the best approaches for implementation and the flexibility such networks provide. Some question whether localized cell solutions will be the de-facto standard for expanding networks in the future, or if there are alternative technologies to assess.
However, the rise of smartphone usage and endless data sessions mandates changes to how carriers provide services to their indoor masses in particular. At this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, when 50,000 fans gathered in a stadium and all wanted to send multimedia messages over their phones, or stream playbacks of goals, it created a challenge well beyond the capacity of the macro-cellular network. What if the stadium had had DAS in place?
You read it here. By 2015, we will see all North American carriers roll out both indoor and outdoor offload strategies, making DAS the big winner of small cells. The benefits are just too compelling to ignore.
John (Jay) Maciejewski is director, Engineering and DAS Services, at Nexius.