5G Asia: Small cells will support 4G continuity as well as 5G innovation
Small Cell Forum will be represented at 5G Asia by Aya Mukaikubo of SoftBank. Ahead of the event, CEO Sue Monahan discusses the steps being taken to progress towards 5G.
At an event like 5G Asia, it is natural to focus on the most advanced deployers of next generation wireless. But it is also important to remember that most operators will not deploy 5G at scale until the early or mid-2020s. That does not mean they are not making key decisions now about their future networks.
Most importantly, mobile operators need to lay strong foundations now, so they can migrate to 5G with minimal disruption, at a time that suits their business case. Even 5G trailblazers like SoftBank are clear that LTE will also have a long life, and the two networks will coexist to a greater extent than in previous generations. In that picture of timely migration and network integration, which will also include Wi-Fi, small cells play the pivotal role.
In a recent survey of 75 mobile operators conducted for Small Cell Forum in the first half of this year, only 8% expected to deploy 5G at scale by the end of 2020, while about half were looking to deploy in 2021-2025. By contrast, over three-quarters expected to densify their current networks significantly by the end of 2020, deploying small cells to increase capacity in targeted areas and extend coverage to remote areas, urban canyons and indoors.
Asia-Pacific is the region where both 5G and densification will happen most rapidly, and so there is a particularly urgent need for small cell technology and deployment processes to evolve rapidly. Operators are not just rolling out these small cells tactically to solve a local problem, but strategically, with a 5G migration in mind.
In many cases, virtualized controllers will make it easier to introduce 5G small cells when those are required to support specific use cases – high quality videoconferencing on a corporate campus, perhaps, or a smart city machine-to-machine service requiring very low latency. But to avoid technology dead ends, and reduce risk, APAC operators are clear that they need common frameworks, interfaces and processes, to improve the economics of dense networks and ensure a path to 5G based on open standards.
Driving these specifications and processes is the central mission of Small Cell Forum in the run-up to 5G, making densification easier now, and looking ahead to new developments, such as the use of millimeter wave spectrum, which will support hyperdense zones of capacity and coverage. Asian operators are in the lead in this respect too – in the same survey, it was found that 42% of small cells deployed during 2020 are expected to be in hyperdense environments (above 150 small cells per square kilometer outdoors), compared to 33% globally.
In APAC, three trends are driving the need for densification, and these will be the commercial drivers for 5G too. They are:
- Enterprise connectivity as businesses go mobile-first
- Densification in targeted high usage locations such as transport hubs etc
- Reaching remote areas and unconnected users
The small cell industry, led by the Forum, have made strong progress in recent years, with ABI Research concluding that outdoor small cell deployments rose by 38% in 2016 (ABI). But in dense environments in APAC, like urban centers or transport hubs, operators say they will need to increase cells by 800% by 2022.
So even more rapid progress is needed towards platforms that will make small cell deployment affordable, automated, scalable and repeatable, and so improve the economics of hyperdensity. Developments which will help include a wider range of ownership models, including neutral host and vertical market deployers; and virtualization to support larger numbers of cells and a mixture of 4G, WiFi and 5G.
The work of the SCF helps develop and drive adoption of these common frameworks, with achievements like the FAPI and nFAPI standard interfaces between cells and controllers, and the HetNet framework architecture. It also partners with many other organizations which are driving progress in the dense HetNet. In its tenth year, the Forum sees small cells moving to the heart of operators’ strategies, especially in APAC. The 5G Asia event will be a perfect environment to discuss and showcase the progress made in small cell platforms, and to help lay the foundations for hyperdensity and 5G.
Aya Mukaikubo of SoftBank will be representing Small Cell Forum at 5G Asia 2-4 October 2017 in Singapore. Members of Small Cell Forum are eligible for a discount. Please get in touch for further details.