Poised for enterprise big time, vendors adopt differentiated approaches, while Forum provides a unifying force
In many ways, the growing pains of a new kind of venue - greater noise challenges, fewer bars and soft seats - mirrored those of an industry which has been engaged in a battle for the mass scale which is essential to its economics. Small cells, whether for the home, enterprise or public networks, need to be cheap, which means they need standard interfaces, to encourage multivendor deployments and price competition; and they need to be shipped in large numbers. Getting the products to the required volumes and price levels to make the basic business case is the first priority (for that large majority of operators with neither the deep pockets nor the critically urgent capacity needs of a few frontrunners like Softbank).
That goal is in sight in the residential space, but the enterprise and urban segments are far more challenging. All kinds of factors point to an uptick in early 2015 - arrival of LTE/WiFi/multimode cells; multi-operator support; the relentless march of data usage, which will start to exhaust macro layer LTE upgrades in some areas, especially indoors. But in these sectors, it is not about an inexorable downward curve in price and footprint, but rather achieving a perfect balance - between cost/volume and added value functionality. On one hand, operators talk about $500 base stations and full automation of large-scale networks of cells; on the other, the same operators call for 'macro equivalency' in functionality terms, and the ability to layer new revenue-generating features, to improve on the basic business case of improved coverage and capacity.
These are tough challenges for the vendors, which are also still grappling with some of the persistent barriers to mass deployment, such as low cost backhaul and site acquisition. But, at least, as the operators' requirements diversify, there are opportunities for individual companies to focus on a particular carrier or enterprise driver, and to innovate and diversify their own offerings. This is shifting some of the focus away from cost alone - though reduced operating costs are probably the most critical enabler of a next wave of roll-out - and towards added value and new business cases.
Key trends, then, included diversification. While many residential small cells will be white-labelled products from Taiwan and Korea, or embedded into home gateways, in the enterprise and urban segments, the Summit saw chip designers, hardware makers and the software ecosystem engaging in new levels of differentiation and diversity. On the processor front, for instance, while Qualcomm was carving out the 'neighborhood area network' as its special target, Cavium was showing off heavy-duty platforms with commonality right up to the cloud server. And among the cells themselves, two veterans of the original femtocell wave were targeting the enterprise from distinctive angles, ip.access with its retail-focused presenceCell and Airvana with its LTE OneCell 'mini Cloud-RAN' system.
Such moves should increase the choices for different types of operators, though of course, this must not come at the cost of fragmentation. Here, the Small Cell Forum is important to drive common platforms and interfaces - as it did successfully with the Iuh interface for residential femtocells, now included in 3GPP standards. The show saw the Forum setting out the latest, rural and remote, iteration of its Release Program, which has a valuable role in bringing together the industry's thinking on deployment practicalities and business models. And importantly, it was also looking ahead to virtualization and promising to play its part in driving unified approaches to the small cell/Cloud-RAN crossover, at a time when most operators say they will not act on either technology at any scale until they are confident they will not end up in a technology island.