From Mobile World Congress: Small Cells Go Big at Home and Outside

As a growing number of people rely on their mobile data connections to upload photos, stream music or play games on their smartphones or tablets, even the smallest slowdown creates frustration that can sting.A crowd with smartphones at a concert

This network congestion problem will only increase as more people power up new data-hungry 3G and 4G mobile devices, which bogs down not only the pipe between a device and a base station but also plagues the data transfer between the base stations and the rest of a wireless carrier’s network.

For carriers, this “spectrum crunch” and the resulting quality issues for customers are a real challenge, one that’s prompted many to seek new technologies to take some of the burden off of existing cell networks. For now, there’s no single approach to addressing the crunch because there are more mobile users than bands on the spectrum to accommodate them.

This week at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, carriers, chipmakers and device manufacturers are talking about ways to ease the crunch while keeping data costs low for consumers. One of the ways to address the problem is to incorporate the use of miniature, short-range base station technologies, collectively called “small cells.”

Related: Connect with Broadcom in the Mobile World Capital: Looking at Tech from the Inside-Out

Using high-density, localized deployments and lower power output, these petite wireless radios can provide relatively affordable relief to the regular carrier networks, acting as “traffic cops” that help seamlessly offload data traffic from cellular to wireless networks. Nearly every major carrier in the U.S. has begun to disclose plans to pepper our homes, neighborhoods and downtowns with these low-power boxes, and a few have already begun.

Broadcom is focused on the technologies that allow cellular carriers, broadband operators and wireless infrastructure manufacturers and device makers to face these challenges and ultimately deliver a better mobile experience to their customers. This week, Broadcom revealed a suite of new products that aim to accelerate small cell base station development and deployment:

  • Single-chip Residential Small Cell Device offers a highly integrated digital baseband modem and RF transceiver designed for 3G small cell base stations and femtocell residential access points.
  • Metropolitan and Enterprise LTE Multi-mode Series is the industry’s first dual-mode SoC family for metrocells, LTE small cells and residential small cells that combines 3G and 4G LTE processing capabilities.
  • Advanced Development Platform for Small Cell Base Stations is a modular, highly integrated platform that enables carriers to develop small cell base stations for multiple radio access technology (RAT) networks. It integrates all the hardware and software needed to speed up the time to market and get small cells up and running. The platform supports simultaneous 3G, 4G, and 802.11n  and 802.11ac networks for more than 200 users and enables carriers to deploy new revenue-generating location-based services.

Mobile Growing Pains

Small cell base stations may be the industry’s best shot for getting through these mobile growing pains. The stations come in all sizes — from card deck-sized ones for inside your apartment to larger ones designed to serve an office park, shopping mall or subway. Some are designed to augment the cellular infrastructure by adding them to rooftops and telephone poles.

Analysts expect a patchwork of efficient and diverse wireless data technologies to emerge, leading to a day when various base station cells could support multiple wireless data types at once (including 4G LTE, Wi-Fi and beyond), allowing mobile devices to cobble together the bandwidth by snatching bits and bytes from all over. Eventually, battery life on these devices could get even better as they learn to prioritize different wireless connections – a smart, self-organizing wireless ecosystem that has been dubbed the HetNet (heterogenous network).

Until that day, carriers will likely be eyeing small cells for relief. According to an industry group called the Small Cell Forum, 21 percent to 75 percent of mobile data could be offloaded at any given moment from the main cellular network to so-called public access small cells — boxes installed for every carrier subscriber’s use, not just for an individual home or office — to boost a small community’s signal.

Small Cells in the Real World

Picture the scene: It’s a beautiful afternoon downtown and a flock of delicious food trucks has circled the small park nearby, drawing in large crowds of people during the lunch hour. The business crowd, chowing down a taco with one hand and tapping on a smartphone with the other, used to create a data crunch on your cell network — but not anymore.

Across the street from the park, a box the size of a DVR has been mounted on the wall of an office building and is pumping out enough small cell bandwidth to connect with the smartphones in the park that are trying to maintain a data connection. And because devices automatically tap into the small cell station, instead of the regular network, traffic improves for everyone nearby.

Wireless carriers envision this process as being completely behind-the-scenes. As the customer, you don’t know that the connection shifted — and really don’t need to know why it works better, just that it does.

“The customers don’t need to know at all,” said Greg Fischer, Vice President and General Manager, broadband carrier access, in the Broadband Communications Group at Broadcom. “They might notice more bars and better battery life. We think the industry will figure out how to do seamless hand-offs.”

For the carriers, there’s an added bonus. When subscribers connect to a small cell base station, their locations are recognized with a higher degree of accuracy, which, in turn, could create new possibilities for location-based services and advertising. Likewise, small cells provide a better understanding of local human behavior patterns.

Related: Ahead of Mobile World Congress: Broadcom’s Latest GPS Tech Zooms in on Geofencing

Different areas become crowded during different times — perhaps during lunch or rush hour, on weekends or during warmer weather. Sporting events, music venues and other public facilities all have different needs depending on the size of the crowds they attract. The network that can recognize these patterns gets exponentially more efficient.

In many ways, wireless carriers are becoming the new urban planners and small cell base stations of all shapes and sizes — built with components from chipmakers like Broadcom — are becoming an important piece of the mobile network of the future.

MWC 2013 logoCome by and see small cells in action at Mobile World Congress:

Hall 3 (Hybrid Hall)
Booth #3C14
Fira de Barcelona Gran Via

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About the Author

Rachel Rosmarin is the chief trade show correspondent for Broadcom. Her technology reporting experience goes back a decade to the dawn of Wi-Fi, smartphones and the Mp3. She has an in-depth knowledge… More