SCF launches initiative to revise the Small Cell Product Definition

The wireless industry has changed almost out of recognition in the decade since Small Cell Forum first sought to answer the question ‘what is a small cell’?

In the early days, small cells (or femtocells as they were originally called) looked fairly similar, regardless of the environment in which they would be deployed, and easily distinguishable in size, weight and power output from other mobile equipment. In the 5G era, small cells will be deployed in a far wider range of scenarios, and the form factors and architectures will be extremely varied.

The introduction of virtualized, disaggregated networks means that some small cells will consist of two or three elements, while others will still be all-in-one. Some form factors will be classed as ‘mini-macros’, which can be deployed unobtrusively on street furniture but have performance and power levels close to those of larger base stations. Others will be so tiny they can be embedded into pavements or consumer electronics.

It is clear, then, that old definitions are now inadequate, yet the Forum was conscious of the risks of the industry fragmenting between hundreds of different designs that had insufficient common features to achieve any scale.

To ensure that diversity is supported, but with consensus on key requirements and features, the TECH Working Group has been running an important work item called Small Cell Product Definition, which will be supported by a major survey of operators, other small cell deployers, and supply chain members. This will be the first such study of its kind and will result in a quantitative view of the most important configurations and specifications for companies deploying small cells between now and 2025.

The work item is led by Vicky Messer of Picocom, and Prabhakar Chitrapu, SCF’s chair. They describe its objective as to “provide a consensus view and concise definition of the types of 5G small cells and the key characteristics of the different types of commercially viable 5G small cell RAN products over the next five years”.  This will be valuable for the whole ecosystem – for vendors and components makers, looking to prioritize their development efforts on the areas of highest demand; for operators, to help as they make their architecture choices; and for external stakeholders such as regulators.

We encourage you to get involved in the survey, which is open to non-SCF members and takes about 15 minutes to complete, online or offline. All responses will be kept completely confidential and all findings will be anonymized. The more organizations agree to take part, the more representative the sample will be of the full range of views across the small cell ecosystem.

We are examining three overall questions in the survey:

  • What are operators’ deployment plans for small cells between 2020 and 2025, by environment (residential, enterprise indoor, enterprise campus indoor/outdoor, dense urban, rural, and private industrial networks)?
  • Which small cell architecture do they expect to adopt for each environment they are targeting?
  • Within each scenario (environment + architecture), what do they expect to be their essential product requirements, and their ‘nice-to-have’ features, for radio units, distributed units, and all-in-one cells?

Early results from a first wave of respondents, which provided details of 35 planned networks, revealed that the nearest term plans were focused heavily on indoor enterprise, urban and campus environments, with high interest in private industrial networks towards the end of the study period.

When it comes to architectures, the main options included are:

  • All-in-one small cell
  • A small cell network with a single split (two elements). Four main splits are considered – Option 2 (3GPP split), Option 6 (SCF split), Option 7.x (O-RAN split) and Option 8 (vRAN split)
  • A small cell network with two splits (three elements). Three options are considered for these splits – Option 2/6, Option 2/7.x and Option 2/8.

The findings so far show a weighting towards single-split or all-in-one architectures for the first wave of deployments, with Option 6 being strongest indoors and Option 7.x in campus or outdoor scenarios. However, these are very preliminary results, and the full findings could be very different, when we achieve the targeted base of at least 100 planned networks.

To do that, we need your input, whether you are an operator, integrator or vendor. If you are planning or working on a small cell deployment, we would really appreciate your input, and your responses will help get the most representative set of results possible.

The findings will form part of a major document, to be published in June, which will provide the definitive definitions of small cells as they will be deployed in different architectures and markets in the 2020s. The definitions will also be mapped to different planning, roll-out and environmental considerations, which vary according to the type of network being considered for each scenario.

This will be a foundational piece of work, bringing consensus and a unified set of priorities to the whole small cell ecosystem. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to ensure your small cell plans are fully reflected in this important study.

If you would like to participate in the survey, please drop us an email.