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Report: DAS to remain vibrant competitor in small cell space

The battle for small cell supremacy is expected to shape the wireless infrastructure for years to come as operators decide on how to densify their mobile broadband networks in order to better serve dense, urban markets. The battle is between distributed antenna systems and small cell options, with the early lead by DAS having more recently been curtailed by the small cell camp.

However, a new report from Infonetics Research predicts that the small cell market is not set for domination as forecast by some, and that DAS will continue as a strong tool for mobile operators.

“To the small cell vendors of the world, we know what you want to hear, but what you need to hear is that the small cell market simply isn’t going to explode as many are predicting,” explained Stéphane Téral, principal analyst for mobile infrastructure and carrier economics at Infonetics.

The research firm noted that while 73% of operators it had interviewed admitted to having deployed small cells, most of those deployments were of the femtocell variety that typically are limited in coverage to a single residence. By comparison, 80% of operators interviewed had deployed a DAS system to bolster their cellular coverage, with a majority of those deployments at venues expected to be the primary home for macrocell support.

“The reality is a majority of operators are still using distributed antennas in their mobile networks for coverage, and despite all the talk about using small cells to boost capacity in large venues, operators we interviewed believe DAS will remain a fundamental tool for malls, airports, stadiums and the like,” added Téral. “Yes, small cells are poised to play a major role in 3G and 4G network expansion, but operators are going to pick the right tool for their needs, be it coverage, capacity or both; indoor, outdoor or both; and small cells aren’t always the right solution. The bottom line is, small cells – I’m not talking about residential femtocells here – remain a tiny market compared to macrocells, and will take time to reach meaningful penetration.”

The report found that of the small cells that have been deployed, a vast majority have taken advantage of spectrum between the 1.5 GHz and 2.2 GHz bands. This would make sense as these higher spectrum bands typically reduce interference issues with traditional cellular networks taking advantage of larger cell sites operating on lower, and thus farther reaching, spectrum bands. This was also highlighted by the survey’s finding that interference with the macro network remained the No. 1 barrier to small cell deployments, though that concern had dropped from previous forecasts.

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