MWC 2024: Small cells provide creative thinking amid 5G disappointment 

Another Mobile World Congress is over, and 2024’s Barcelona jamboree was almost up to pre-pandemic strength, topping 100,000 attendees according to organizers GSMA.

MWC is always full of hype, gimmicks, and demoes so blue-sky that they will rarely be seen outside an exhibition hall. This year, there were fewer robots roaming the aisles than in 2023 (though one holding a drinks tray drew attention) but far more drone taxis and scarily lifelike AI bots.  

But behind the fun and occasional silliness, the show is a great barometer of the state of the industry, which is particularly important during economic hard times. If we could pick out one overriding theme of the 2024 event it was not the ubiquitous AI, but disappointment with how the 5G business case has turned out so far. Much of the serious debate, often led by small cell vendors and operators, turned on ways to improve 5G ROI, and kickstart deployment again. 

Disappointment with 5G 

In 2023, the biggest themes of key relevance to the small cells sector were private networks, the promise of 5G-Advanced including IoT, a redirection of Open RAN, satellite/5G integration, and AI-driven automation. In 2024, all of these were central to debate, but the discussion had shifted in all cases.  

The main shift was driven by industry-wide disappointment with 5G. 5G Standalone has seen possibly the slowest adoption curve of any major mobile standard, contributing to poor financial performance by large vendors, and consolidation – HPE’s proposed acquisition of Juniper, and Spirent’s of Viavi, are just recent examples that will shift the landscape for enterprise WiFi and cellular networks, and 5G/Open RAN testing, respectively. 

Operators used their keynotes and lavish stands to explain that they would not deploy 5G SA at scale until the business case was clear, and for most of them, that had not yet happened. BT’s Howard Watson said the telco would wait until 5G SA was “right”; SK Telekom set out a digital strategy that did not once mention 5G SA.  

That has a knock-on effect on enthusiasm for 5G-Advanced, the next generations of 3GPP standards, and for ‘6G’, however that may look. There was less specific talk of 5G-A than in 2023, though there were interesting demoes of its capabilities, particularly focused on very dense networks to support industrial and consumer use cases (the latter no longer labelled ‘metaverse’ but heavily reliant on AR/VR). And there was far less crystal ball-gazing towards 6G, by an industry keen to get operators moving with the current technologies rather than dreaming of the next. 

Private and enterprise networks 

All along the cellular timeline, however, the cells get smaller, and dense networks provide most of the hope for near-term uplift in 5G SA and 5G-A. It is notable that the conversation was rarely focused on densification of the public network – Massive MIMO, a huge success story for most operators, is the first priority for improving macro network capacity, along with new midband spectrum. The near-term promise of small cells lies firmly in parallel networks with a specific purpose – addressing the key requirement that 5G SA must have a clearly defined application and purpose. Private and enterprise networks, network-in-a-box designs for emergency response and smaller businesses, smart city networks, all of these were on center stage, and all of them rely on small cells. 

It is not all a rush to the next generation. Private networks in their current form are still heavily 4G-focused and vendors and operators discussed which applications would spur 4G users to migrate to 5G. But some of the use cases on show provided powerful proof that such applications – requiring both dense networks and 5G SA- did exist. 5G SA enables mobile operators and private network operators to adopt the right enterprise 5G model for their business, more flexibly.  

That might be a self-contained RAN and core, and there was considerable focus on converged RAN/core/edge propositions to support environments that need limited interaction with the public network, and can take advantage of full control of their processes, connectivity capabilities and data privacy. Or it might be a hybrid public/private network, as shown off by Deutsche Telekom and others, a slice (demonstrated by NTT Docomo and STC), or a neutral host network facilitated by a cloud-based RAN and core. 

Neutral hosts 

Neutral host specialists had a louder voice than in 2023, partly because the large towercos, such as Cellnex and Crown Castle, have pulled back somewhat from private networks and active small cells in the past year, leaving more space for companies focused specifically on these segments.  

Ontix has its indoor and outdoor offerings fully commercialized now, for instance, and is leveraging the UK’s JOTS (Joint Operators Technical Specification) NHIB (Neutral Host In-Building) platform to expand its reach, while looking ahead to the upcoming outdoor version. Boldyn, perhaps best-known for deploying cellular in the London Underground, talked about its acquisition of private networks operator Edzcom, and showed a fascinating demonstration of the Artemis pCell, a software-defined radio architecture that enables dynamic ‘personal cells’. 

The combination of neutral hosting with cloud-native RAN is potentially a powerful one because of the flexibility it provides for the monetization model, and there were solutions on display in every layer of the network stack from chips to software to applications – DenseAir, Radisys, NuRAN and EdgeQ are just four names to check, along with giant enabling firms such as ARM. 

Network in a box 

Vodafone has taken the high ground in network-in-a-box offerings but there were smaller providers on show too, such as Scotland’s Neutral Wireless.  

All these are practical, commercially available solutions that could improve the overall 5G business case and unlock some deployments that are much-needed by certain enterprise sectors. And some vendors and operators were setting out roadmaps that could build on such beginnings and add new capabilities in future. The convergence of sensing, super-accurate positioning and comms in one network was a hot topic, for instance, and highly reliant on very small cells that can be deployed or even embedded anywhere. 

High frequency spectrum – including mmWave 

Another source of conversation and significant debate was high frequency spectrum, including millimeter wave. There has been limited use of mmWave spectrum by MNOs, outside of the USA’s fixed wireless access launch and Japan, but the industry is starting to identify specific use cases that benefit from mmWave, often in neutral host, shared spectrum environments. SCF’s upcoming publication of a mmWave paper focused on use cases for Industry 4.0, as well as FWA, will certainly be timely. 

There was also focus on the often-related topic of Massive MIMO. The latter was especially central in 2023 because it was holding up Open RAN. Last year, accelerator wars were prominent, as chip providers raced to launch vRAN acceleration solutions that could offload Layer 1 network tasks from central processors and make a cloud-based baseband fit to support large antenna arrays. This year, the accelerators were commercially available and on display, and combined with the O-RAN Alliance’s new fronthaul options for uplink, there was a sense that the O-RAN/mMIMO conundrum had been addressed, which is important for cells of all sizes and especially if small and macro cells are to be deployed with common architectures.  

The Open RAN debate 

This did not mean that Open RAN was no longer a source of debate. 2023 saw the definition shift away from a network with radio units, basebands and network functions from separate suppliers and towards a single source of radios and basebands, with the ‘open’ element largely coming from a third party cloud infrastructure. In 2024, there was some progress back to ‘true’ multivendor Open RAN – AT&T and Docomo were among the operators outlining their plans to run radio units from multiple vendors with their basebands, and Docomo also grabbed headlines by announcing that it would run many RAN functions in the public (AWS) cloud.  

However, these are big-vendor deployments, with radios from Fujitsu and basebands from Ericsson or NEC, so we had to look to small cells for real opportunities for smaller challengers. These included Three UK’s small cell deployments in Glasgow, Scotland with Mavenir, and Wave Electronics’ O-RAN small cell launch, based on silicon from Picocom.  

Overall, it is clear that small cell deployers can move more quickly to implement new architectures and see commercial returns, and the work that SCF does to engage with the cloud and IT software worlds is vital, to ensure that evolution of RAN and cloud is closely allied to the needs of dense networks.  

Not forgetting… AI  

And then there was AI. Undoubtedly the most prominent, and most hyped, theme of MWC 2024, from consumer apps to customer service to RAN integration. The launch of the AI-RAN Alliance, heavily driven by Nvidia and ARM, was just the most visible sign of the industry’s next great hope for transforming the cost-efficiency and capability of mobile networks and perhaps resuscitating the 5G business case. From AI-enhanced RAN automation, particularly in the RAN Intelligent Controller, to full integration of AI into RAN Layer 1 and RF front end chips, the topic was everywhere. Next year’s Barcelona event should provide some indication of how many solutions are actually viable and the impact on the 5G and future 6G case. But as with many technology trends, much of the early innovation and deployment will be done in smaller cells because it is easier to try something new and radical in a contained network that can be separated from the main installed RAN and core. 

Beyond Open RAN, enterprise and AI, there were other opportunities for small cells, that were on display in various vendor and operator booths, including rural connectivity, integration with satellite for backhaul and wide-area IoT, energy efficiency, sustainability (recyclable small cells for instance), security, and advances in spectral efficiency.

All these are important areas of work for SCF. To find out about our current work activities visit our technology work program or our regulatory work program webpages.