This year’s Mobile World Congress actually saw less frantic 5G hype than in 2016 and 2017, and more considered discussion of the broader next generation network platform. In that context, densification was an important theme, and featured prominently in keynote speeches, on-stand demonstrations and product launches.
The US regulator and operators put 4G and 5G densification firmly on the agenda from day one. FCC chair Ajit Pai, in his keynote, pledged November spectrum auctions in millimeter wave bands – whose short range and high capacity will make them ideal for dense deployments. He also called for US regulatory reform to streamline site approval processes, highlighting FCC proposals to reduce site review procedures and costs, and exclude many 5G cells from these.
Pai said: “Capital is finite, and capital is smart. It will flow to those countries that have updated and modernized their regulatory structures. A key obstacle is our country’s outdated infrastructure regulations, which were written for previous generations of wireless technology.”
The US operators will welcome these new rules, which will be debated later this month, since they are gearing up for mass-scale urban small cell roll-out. T-Mobile USA said in Barcelona that it plans to build out 5G in 30 cities this year, including 25,000 small cells in locations like New York and Los Angeles. And Sprint announced that it will launch ‘5G-ready’ networks in six cities from April, including Los Angeles and Washington DC. These roll-outs will include 40,000 outdoor small cells, 15,000 stand-mounted small cells and up to one million of the operator’s ‘Magic Boxes’, supplied by Airspan.
Vendors were racing to supply the kind of products these large deployments will require. New spectrum bands geared to small cells were a highlight of this year’s event, including many prototype 5G access points and devices for millimeter wave airwaves, and for the US’s CBRS shared spectrum. IP.access was among the small cell specialists showing off platforms for shared frequencies – especially CBRS and, internationally, the TV white spaces.
The major suppliers were fleshing out their small cell portfolios – Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei added 5G support and 4G urban ‘mini-macro’ designs. But the 5G ecosystem is set to be far more open than the current landscape, so the barriers are coming down for smaller suppliers too. One of the most eye-catching demonstrations was a collaboration between Belgian small cell company Accelleran and Turkey’s Argela, which demonstrated a virtualized network of small cells which could be programmed on the fly and support network slicing, even before 5G.
Innovations like this will evolve the small cell platform to support a wide range of new use cases and topologies in 5G. One of the most important developments is the integration of edge computing into the mobile network, and as cloud functions get distributed to an increasingly distant edge, small cells will have a key role to play. A conference session entitled ‘Do 5G Business Cases Depend More on Core or Edge Upgrades?’ typified the debate which was held across many panels and exhibition stands, as operators grapple with the architectural decisions that will maximize the returns from their dense HetNets.
Such discussions show how the small cell platform is expanding and maturing, taking in new architectures, spectrum options and service models. Most importantly, there are far more large-scale deployments to inject scale and confidence into the sector. The US is leading the charge, but there are plenty of other projects. At MWC, Telstra of Australia announced that it will deploy 1,000 urban small cells this year to pave the way for 5G, while Reliance Jio and Turkcell were building on their initial densification programs.
Combined with these actions, regulatory and operator decisions over the coming year will ensure a considerably enhanced densification landscape by the time we all convene in Barcelona next February.