ATLANTA – The wireless industry’s move to small cells has been accelerated by consumer demand for service in increasingly difficult places to reach with traditional cellular infrastructure. These locations include densely occupied buildings, packed public venues and underground.
This push to small cells led a number of speakers at this week’s DAS in Action event to claim that carriers are now building out their wireless networks from the inside out, rather than outside in. And to the delight of many attending the event, distributed antenna systems are in the middle of this new direction.
While carriers have for some time been using DAS and other small cell technologies to bolster network coverage and capacity, the dollars spent on such deployments paled in comparison to the tens of billions spent each year on macro-cellular networks. Many at this year’s DAS event, including carrier representatives, expect this gap to shrink.
Topics touched on during the first day of the event included a robust discussion on what form of small cell technology would be ideal for different venues. In general, panel members seemed to conclude that the choice depended on variables such as how much a venue owner was looking to invest into a small cell network, the challenges of installing such a system and what sort of performance they were expecting.
But make no mistake, panel members all felt that deploying small cell solutions, regardless of acronym selected, was becoming necessary in what is becoming a data-hungry environment. Jim Parker, senior manager of AT&T’s Antenna Solutions Group, touted the 8,000% increase in data traffic the carrier has seen over the past couple years as evidence to this hunger, a statistic that was echoed several times during the day’s event.
During a later panel, speakers tackled the somewhat contentious issue of Wi-Fi and DAS coexisting in the same environment. Distributed antenna systems look to augment a carrier’s current voice and data network with a focused antenna deployment targeting high-traffic areas using licensed spectrum a wireless operator already owns. While Wi-Fi is typically used as an offload option for data traffic in similar high-traffic locations using less expensive nodes and the “Wild West” of unlicensed spectrum.
Hany Fahmy, director of radio access network planning for AT&T Mobility, looked to diffuse any tension noting that both technologies have a place in the market, or at least for AT&T Mobility. The carrier has aggressively deployed Wi-Fi offload networks in high-profile locations like Times Square in order to deal with the 8,000% increase in data traffic noted earlier in the day by Parker. AT&T Mobility has also used DAS to increase coverage in some markets, with an AT&T Mobility representing noting in a later presentation the use of the technology during this year’s Super Bowl in Indianapolis.
“It’s not a debate anymore between Wi-Fi and LTE or UMTS,” Fahmy explained. “Each has their own sweet spot, their own applications.” Fahmy added that the challenge now was to find a way to seamlessly merger these technologies together to the benefit of consumers.
Panel members also seemed to find agreement that not only is data traffic growing, but it’s changing as well. Proponents from both the Wi-Fi and DAS side noted that they were seeing upload traffic starting to match numbers seen on the downlink that many attributed to the growing use of social media to upload videos and pictures from events rather than just downloading content.
Perhaps looking to appease the DAS supporters in attendance, representatives from both AT&T Mobility and T-Mobile USA noted that when it comes to bolstering voice traffic, DAS still ruled the day as quality of service issues with unlicensed spectrum prevented a greater dependence on Wi-Fi.
The true importance of in-building communications was touched on during a different panel that looked at public safety requirements. Panel members noted that more than a decade after the events of Sept. 11, the nation was still without an interoperable public safety network, though recent moves by Congress to set aside 20 megahertz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band for such a plan could see this issue tackled in the near future.
Beyond the need for spectrum, panel members also cited potential in growing requirements for public safety compliant in-building systems for new construction as well as retrofit to older buildings. However, the cost of such systems are being pushed upon building owners, which highlighted the continued funding issues surrounding the public safety communications space.
“The biggest challenge for public safety remains funding,” explained Seth Buechley, president of Solid Technologies USA, who added that the burden was falling to those building owners required to install such systems and public carriers that are looking for a partnership with the public safety community.
One of those operators is Verizon Wireless, which has a history of attempts to partner with first responders on building out a wireless network that utilizes the carrier’s CDMA-based 2G/3G network and more recently deployed LTE-based network. Alex Coleman, VP of public sector, government, public safety and education markets for Verizon Enterprise Solutions, noted the carrier has seen some early success with its partnership with Ericsson and Motorola Solutions.
One potential sticking point for Coleman and Verizon could be the need to provide a single device capable of roaming across the carrier’s public CDMA and LTE networks as well as providing interoperability with current public safety communication standards.
As for the future of DAS and small cell technologies, it was interesting to note that nearly all panel members throughout the day limited their prognostication as to what we could expect down the road to at most 2 years due to the ever-changing dynamics of both the industry and outside influences.
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