Public safety and ‘extreme users’ are pushing small cells to new limits

In the mobile world, discussion tends to focus on MNOs’ mainstream deployments geared to consumer data and voice. Yet many of the most interesting innovations in the RAN originate from highly specialized use cases in areas like public safety or industrial communications. These demanding applications can stretch a technology to its limits, and those advances can then be fed back into the mainstream to improve performance for everyone.

This pattern is clearly seen in small cells, which by their nature can be deployed in local clusters which are optimized for a particular application or user base. The Small Cell Forum’s growing catalog of commercial deployment case studies includes many that are providing connectivity for very specialized vertical sectors such as oil rigs.

This month, both Ericsson and Nokia announced small cells whose innovative approach is initially targeted at a particular application, but could benefit the whole platform in time.

Nokia’s Ultra Compact Network is a ‘small cell in a backpack’, which allows a localized RAN to be created quickly for public safety or emergency response purposes. It can be transported in a backpack, vehicle or even a drone and while it is primarily aimed at safety applications, it could also serve remote locations or large events. The company is trialling the system, which includes an embedded evolved packet core, with UK operator BT/EE.

Nokia is the latest in a series of companies which have pushed small cell technology to new limits in sectors where temporary, emergency or very remote access is required. Parallel Wireless and virtual EPC provider Quortus both have commercial deployments in these areas too.

The interesting trend is that the lessons learned in such specialized environments – such as virtualizing packet core functions on very small hardware, or supporting ultra-reliable communications between moving base stations – are also relevant to more mainstream networks, and will start to influence how they are designed and deployed.

Ericsson’s launch, also in conjunction with a UK operator (Vodafone UK), was a ‘network in a briefcase’ designed to ease deployment of small cells in very urban environments. This is one of several recent developments which aim to fulfil the promise of truly ubiquitous coverage by allowing small cells to be deployed in the most unlikely places.

At the recent Small Cell Forum annual awards, Swisscom and antenna maker Kathrein were shortlisted for the Judges’ Choice prize for their work, with Ericsson, on embedding small cells in manhole covers. Now the new Ericsson Radio System, which supports three-way carrier aggregation, is light and portable enough to be installed on a wider range of structures, opening up new options for flexible urban deployment and minimising regulatory issues. Other small cell vendors are targeting the demanding requirements of ultra-urban deployment – especially for safety and city applications which need complete coverage and reliability – with new form factors, and these innovations will feed back into the mainstream to help ease roll-outs of all networks.

These developments set new standards in flexibility and portability for small cell networks, and while these ultra-lightweight, instantly deployable cells are most urgently needed for specialized applications such as emergency response, they will help to change the economics of all roll-outs. That will become even more important as operators start to prepare for large-scale Internet of Things services, especially in Industrial IoT segments, such as connected factories and railways, which have traditionally relied on private networks. Small cells will be vital to provide the coverage and targeted capacity which will enable these mission critical networks, if LTE is to be able to replace specialized technologies like TETRA. So the innovations which are happening now to address the most extreme mobile requirements are also helping to build a platform for a new set of operator revenue streams going forward.