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HetNet News: Small cells, SDN deliver 4G option for rural carriers

The cost of upgrading legacy networks to LTE can be prohibitive for the so-called tier-three operators. Next-generation small cells operating in a distributed network core may offer an alternative.

SDN enables networks within networks

Software-defined architectures enable network functionality to migrate away from the core, increasing the level of service that an operator can provide in a given area. These “networks within networks” are partially enabled by software-defined networks) and are evolving to serve rural carrier needs, although most vendors initially saw this as a tier-one solution.

ExteNet Systems, a developer of distributed antenna systems, decided several years ago to make in investment in SDN and distributed core networks, based on identified needs of its tier-one carrier customers.

“We started to develop this belief that because of capacity, the cost of routing and switching, your transport cost, and more importantly just to be able to meet some of the needs [of] the customer base … the legacy network architecture wasn’t going to be able to do it,” said ExteNet co-founder Eric Lecacz.

The company’s distributed core solution has been in trials for the past year, and is now deployed in live networks as well as some that are under development. Lecacz said ExteNet is working with the tier-one carriers at a “strategic level” now, and is ready to adapt the SDN model to the needs of the tier-three carriers that cannot afford to invest in a 4G core network.

“It’s a huge opportunity for new revenue sources for rural carriers,” he said. “Despite having the spectrum, the economic model for deploying 4G LTE in less populated areas has been a challenge for rural carriers.”

He said that the combination of SDN and IP network architecture enables an evolved packet core that can be centralized, distributed or virtualized. This opens the door for 4G small cell deployments in areas where a macro site would not offer an acceptable return on investment.

ExteNet sees small cells as a key component of its distributed architecture, and believes that its SDN solution will drive more small cell deployments. The company’s solution is an alternative to the hosted small cell solutions offered by ClearSky and Cellcom.

“The tier-three and the remote market is a very interesting market,” said Lecacz. He noted that the tier-one carriers are also addressing rural markets, and said he believes there are complementary economic models. He thinks the tier-three carriers will deliver 4G service to areas that are not profitable for the tier-ones, and that the tier-ones will take advantage of that service for roaming.

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Martha DeGrasse
Martha DeGrasse is the publisher of Network Builder Reports ( At RCR, Martha authored more than 20 in-depth feature reports and more than 2,400 news articles. She also created the Mobile Minute and the 5 Things to Know Today series. Prior to joining RCR Wireless News, Martha produced business and technology news for CNN and Dow Jones in New York and managed the online editorial group at Hoover’s Online before taking a number of years off to be at home when her children were young. Martha is the board president of Austin's Trinity Center and is a member of the Women's Wireless Leadership Forum.

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