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Wireless network operators are under increasing pressure to provide more capacity, coverage and quality without increasing end user price. The key to success in 2015 is efficiency. I expect operators will continue to modernize their networks and upgrade to LTE while discussing more efficient future architectures. They will further increase capacity in their networks through cell splitting, the creation of a metro layer and continued focus on deploying the indoor coverage layer. Where there is quality, there is capacity. Here’s a summary of the key trends and big issues I anticipate operators will be facing in 2015:
1) Network Modernization Continues to Be Critical
LTE is the latest evolution of commercial cellular systems and boasts the greatest spectral efficiency yet. Efficiency improvements, however, are not limited to spectrum, but also to the ecosystem as a whole. To service customers with more data for the same price, each and every portion of the infrastructure will be evaluated, negotiated, calculated and optimized—from the core network to the remote towers at the end of the radio access network (RAN), from power consumption to the amount of space used at a cell site and the time it takes to acquire a site. When operators modernize their networks, they look to do so across all aspects of their ecosystem.
2) Cloud Architectures Will be Debated and Discussed
In the pursuit of efficiency, there are both near and far term dimensions. One of the biggest long term benefits may come from Cloud RAN (C-RAN) or Network Functions Virtualization (NFV), as it is also known. C-RAN is an architecture that starts with applications and data being hosted in data centers on traditional, standard IT equipment. Some of this architecture may be in mega data centers and some may be located closer to the user for latency reasons.
Efficiency comes from the utilization of off-the-shelf, standardized hardware and the virtualization of software. Depending on how far virtualization is pushed into the network, some if not all of the call processing can be moved away from today’s special purpose-made hardware. This change in equipment as it gets further in the RAN out toward the tower, subsuming the current eNode-B, will drive fewer products at the bottom of the tower and more integration at the top of the tower, thus creating gains in space and power efficiency.
3) Spectral Reuse Still Matters
Improving spectrum usage is not limited to changes in standards, for example, the evolution to LTE. Efficiently improving your spectrum usage is also key to a long term, successful network. Capacity on a cellular network comes from the reuse of spectrum, not just its efficient use. Spectrum is reused through sector splitting or adding more cell sites. A sector split has long been considered the most cost-effective way to add capacity. Initial cellular systems were all omni-sector, but when capacity was needed many split into 3-sector sites. Sites that require additional capacity in 3G and 4G networks are now being split into six sectors. High density, special purpose solutions can include antennas that have up to 27 beams (or sectors) at a single site.
4) The Metro Layer Matters More
Another way to add capacity and one that continues to gain popularity is the creation of a metro layer. These are new cells that are lower to the ground, placed not for initial coverage but rather to add capacity to the system. Metro cells require new site acquisition, backhaul and power and are more expensive on a per user served basis. For efficiency’s sake, it is critical to make mounting cellular infrastructure easier and more cost effective. Utilizing existing street poles and furniture is of significant help in addressing metro layer deployment challenges.
5) Indoor Is Increasingly Important
There is also indoor coverage to consider. This new layer of coverage adds massive capacity very close to the user and is under an enormous change in both architecture and efficiency. Consider that indoor distributed antenna systems (DAS) were used simply to provide coverage not too long ago. But with 80 percent of all traffic on cellular systems occurring indoors, DAS are capacity enhancement vehicles today. As you move to smaller and smaller cell radiuses, you gain in capacity and in quantity. New DAS systems automate much of what was done by skilled technicians in the past, new interfaces conserve energy and cost, and new methodologies enable maintenance and operations by a much larger group of people.
6) Quality Is the Key to Capacity
Simplification helps create network quality. As architectures have changed and evolved through the various generations, they have consistently been simplified. The same theme that has been applied to the core is being applied to the RAN portion of the network. From the use of multi-band, multi-technology antennas and remote radio units to innovations in connectivity, the RAN is being improved and optimized for capacity. Simplifying the RAN extends to improving deployment, where innovations in equipment have led to easier and higher quality installations that in turn lead to increases in capacity.
As the middle of the decade, 2015 marks the general acceptance milestone for 4G LTE, meaning the point in the technology evolution when LTE handsets and networks have become stable, generally available and cost effective. Although not all network operators have implemented LTE, most have plans in place or are under construction. Like previous years, 2015 will be marked by continued and accelerating increases in data usage. Unlike the past, it will likely occur without rising end user prices, promising increased scrutiny on network efficiency.