Densification Breakdown

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Thank you Sprint for making densification the new buzz word in the industry but the reality is that it’s been happening for years.  Now we have the ability to put the cell where the people are with small cells and CRAN. The concept is nothing new and yet Sprint is making it a buzzword, good job Sprint.

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Quick history lesson. First carriers built tower sites and building top sites. Lets call them the macro sites. In the early days they were built for the maximum coverage of real estate. They were usually high above ground level, (AGL), so that they could cover the most square miles, square meters, for coverage. Then along came DAS, so that we had great indoor coverage. Then systems went digital and the devices power got lower and lower. Cell sites had to cover smaller areas. More macro were sites built and DAS systems were being deployed. Then came the smartphone which changed the way people use their devices in the carriers ecosystem. Everything is going digital and LTE is taking over. Now you have a huge number of macro sites and DAS installations.  What could help? Enter the small cell and CRAN systems bringing the signal as close to the user as possible for maximum data bandwidth.

Densification has been around for years but now we have the opportunity to change the landscape of deployment and coverage. Seriously, let me explain. In the past we were concerned with area coverage and RF penetration. We put in sites to get closer to where the people are. Then came DAS, where we could put systems inside buildings to cover more people. Coverage was key.

Now coverage isn’t good enough, is it? Now we need to provide bandwidth, which at first was OK, until the iPhone changed everything. That is why we migrated from GSM and CDMA to LTE. When you look at coverage and download speed we all look at LTE. The new format that carriers hope will last 10 years or so. It is getting faster and faster by using upgraded radio heads, devices, and MIMO. More available bandwidth is good!

Now we need to make sure the sites have plenty of backhaul, but the real solution is to control loading. Loading, or should I say offloading needs to be panned out since most people rely on their smartphone for everything. We need better indoor coverage using small cells, LTE-U, or Wi-Fi. This will offload the macro sites and make the user happy.

Say hello to my friend the HetNet. The carriers need to use all the tools available to handle the increasing data needs of the user. I say user because smartphone users are data users and most of them want one thing, more data. More data means more bandwidth and that means the best coverage possible. You also need backhaul where the people are using their devices.  Backhaul growth is critical.

To do all of this we need to densify the network, add sites to offload. Oh, did I mention Quality of Experience, QoE? QoE needs to be taken into consideration. Keep the user happy!

Where did I start? Oh yeah, maximizing spectrum. Spectrum ain’t cheap, so let’s make the most of it. This is where Verizon and T-Mobile have really taken the lead because they know that the smaller the cell coverage the better re-use of spectrum they get. They can break it down to where spectrum can be re-used in a smaller area. So now they can get more users on that spectrum by adding small cell coverage areas. It does take more sites and it is more of an investment in the sites, but saves on the spectrum. That is why the oDAS using small cells and CRAN makes so much sense, which Verizon has been deploying successfully. This really helps QoE for the user. Carriers have more control doing it that way and they can break off the loading from the Macro sites by concentrating the spectrum where they need it. Thus, the smaller coverage area allows the spectrum reuse to go way up.

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This is where the small cell and CRAN really help, by allowing carriers to get the most bandwidth for the buck in the spectrum they have without purchasing more. Carrier aggregation really helps, more on that here. It makes sense to break down the coverage so that loading and spectrum are more efficient. When they need more spectrum they can purchase it and start to overlay it where needed. It makes more sense at this stage of the game to overlay new spectrum, as long as the devices are ready to handle the new spectrum.

  • Quick note:
    • Small Cell is a stand alone cell site, could be a mini macro or a single sector cell site, a single eNodeB, but very low power
    • CRAN is centralized Radio Access Network which means there is a BBU mounted in a central location connected to several remote radio heads nearby.
    • cRAN or C-RAN is Cloud RAN. This means that the core has the controller and the radio heads are remotely located at a site where there is only a router and a radio head. These are still being tested and built, timing is the issue.

There are also other strategies, like offloading to the unlicensed band. Look how we all rely on Wi-Fi for the data offloading. It really has been a great thing and it saves on our carrier bills. Now that Wi-Fi calling is happening maybe carrier Wi-Fi will become more popular. Just wait until LTE-U takes off, it will add so much more to the toolbox. Aggregation will work so well with LTE-U.

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I believe that LTE-U will also be exciting. It will really make the system run very well and it should maximize the unlicensed band while allowing a clean handoff from licensed to unlicensed. One more option that we will have and it’ something that the carriers seem very excited to work with. They didn’t exactly greet Wi-Fi with open arms until recently when LTE took over and it became a world of applications on the devices.

Sprint is going to adopt the densification philosophy with their new plan, the densification plan that Mobilitie has to execute. Sprint says that the 600MHz spectrum, article here, is not enough because they need bigger channels. Strange! Why? Because they decided not to bid at all, getting no spectrum, and use their 2.5GHz band for in band backhaul. That doesn’t align with the message, but hey, I don’t do marketing at Sprint, do I?

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The carriers will need to find a way to release the indoor small cell deployments to contractors so that enterprise coverage can grow, Article here. They don’t want to pay for more indoor coverage but they haven’t developed a system to let deployment teams sell direct. Get it together carriers! I’ll bet T-Mobile may do this first just to push the other carriers around and improve their coverage by getting customers to pay for it.

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