Small cells are central to the biggest themes at Mobile World Congress 2022

by SCF CSO Simon Fletcher

Mobile World Congress was back to its usual time slot at the end of February in 2022, and despite the pandemic, managed to fill the Barcelona Fira conference centre with over 50,000 attendeees – about half its pre-Covid numbers.

In some ways, the event felt as though three years hadn’t intervened since the last large-scale MWC. There may have been fewer stands than usual, but there were still eye-catching demonstrations by cutting-edge operators, such as SK Telecom and NTT Docomo, of advanced 5G robotics and immersive reality. And still many of the same themes as in 2019, even if many of the 5G use cases discussed then, and particularly the 5G standalone mode, are a lot closer to reality now.

From the small cell point of view, at a first glance it might have seemed that there was a smaller presence than three years ago. But on a second look, it was clear that, while there were fewer exhibitors and demonstrations specifically labelled as ‘small cell’, in fact, small cells were foundational to many of this year’s most dominant themes.

5G standalone and all its potential applications may have been the glue sticking all the discussions and launches together, but the topics that generated the most headlines, debate and buzz – with the usual dose of Barcelona hype too – were undoubtedly Open RAN, private cellular networks, and extended reality (evolving towards the metaverse).

In all of these, small cells are a central part of the solution. Many of the start-ups and other new entrants to the mobile market, that are enabled by open platforms, are focusing initially on open networks based on small cells, for rural and enterprise scenarios. This is because there is clear demand for a cost-effective way to extend cellular coverage to rural areas and into buildings, and so new entrants can see a more immediate opportunity than in the macro network, and one where there is less incumbent competition.

That demand was driving many of the announcements about Open RAN, which came from all sides – Vodafone and Telefonica reiterated and amplified their commitment to open networks while Docomo demonstrated its own RAN platform; and new solutions were offered at every layer of the network from chips to applications. The majority of these focused on small cells, and Small Cell Forum’s FAPI interface was commonly cited, powering a wide range of access points and processors, from majors like Qualcomm to start-ups like Picocom.

Monitoring the activities of start-ups at MWC is always a good barometer of interest in emerging technologies, that are likely to enter the mainstream in the next year or two. Two themes that caught our eye were chips and networks supporting millimeter wave spectrum, usually with the FAPI interface; and processors that combined 5G and AI tasks in a coordinated fashion, offloading two of the most compute-intensive tasks in an intelligent mobile network to a single system.

Both these areas of activity are deeply relevant to small cell evolution. Millimeter wave spectrum, with its very short range, is inherently associated with smaller networks, and after years when these high frequencies have been largely ignored outside the USA, the time seems to be right for operators to start planning to use these bands. In most cases, the focus is first on using mmWave spectrum for dense, small cell networks for venues, hotspots and for enterprise environments with heavy traffic requirements such as factories.

And where there are large numbers of small cells in a virtualised RAN, there is a need for analytics and AI to ensure the network is as efficient and automated as possible. Barcelona saw a lot of discussion about combining AI and 5G in complex small cell networks for applications such as transport management or robotics. And related to that was a focus on network automation including the RAN Intelligent Controller, with companies that made their name in small cell self-optimizing network (SON) systems, such as Airhop, showing off clever applications for 5G RAN control enhanced by AI.

Then, away from the conference agenda, there was a huge focus on private cellular networks as a largely 4G market starts to evolve towards 5G and towards very advanced applications in ports, mines, transport hubs and other complex wireless environments. There were private network operators, neutral hosts and MNOs describing a host of approaches to supporting enterprise networks, whether fully on-premise or managed from the cloud. Many small cell products and management systems were specifically being targeted at private networks, while neutral hosts such as Ontix were prominent in setting out cost-efficient ways to support enterprise cellular as it becomes widespread and moves beyond voice and data coverage, to enabling a plethora of business-critical services.

Finally, there was the metaverse. Meta’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave a much-discussed statement in which he implied that MNOs and their networks would not be up to the task of enabling the full metaverse experience. There will undoubtedly be many other types of organization supporting metaverse applications, just as there are in private networks, and indeed, even in a show that is so tightly bound up with the MNOs’ interests, there was a strong recognition that the 5G era will increasingly be about diversity of service providers and network deployers. But there was also evidence of the traditional mobile industry stepping up its efforts to adapt to the challenges of future markets like the metaverse.

Whoever the successful stakeholders will be in this vision of ubiquitous extended reality and real world/virtual world fusion, it is clear that cellular networks will need to provide unprecedented capacity, reliability and absolutely universal coverage. All that will rely heavily on small cells that can be deployed in every remote corner, and on a diversity of organizations that can roll them out and manage them. These trends were clear at MWC, and will inform SCF’s work in the year ahead.