No Silver Bullet for Data Capacity Crunch

Research reveals that small cells and a variety of technologies will be needed to address the data capacity crunch. While the world runs out of spectrum, a combination of different techniques could be used to provide up to 50x more capacity.

The world is running out of spectrum – mobile planners at O2 say they will run out by 2014 if they continued to use traditional methods. LTE, the new 4G radio technology, has been marketed as the solution – very fast, efficient and adaptable.

65 network planners see the world differently

A detailed survey of network planners from 65 mobile networks worldwide reveals a different picture. LTE alone won’t solve the capacity problem – it may bring additional new spectrum which will be very welcome, and provide some further efficiencies. However, these are expected to deliver at most 4x growth – far short of the 30x to 50x required.

cell towers

Not one, but many solutions will be required.

The research finds that no single solution will be enough – a complex combination of 3G, 4G and Wi-Fi will all be required. A common theme is the number and size of base stations required to deliver the capacity required. Planners expect to be spending the majority of their annual equipment investment in small cells, shifting growth away from today’s highly visible cell towers. 59% of planners believe that by 2017, small cells will outnumber their macrocells by a factor of 10:1. This will deliver a huge growth in capacity. 94% of planners expect at least 20x data capacity growth, with 24% predicting 50x growth in that timeframe.

Three waves of capacity growth

Planners see three waves of technology deployment being used to address the data storm:

  • Firstly, traditional techniques will be exploited. Radio interface improvements such as HSPA+ will continue, new spectrum added and further sectorisation. But this path leads to diminishing returns.
  • Secondly, new techniques are being deployed. A change in network topology, with small cells and remote radio heads, allows the same frequencies to be reused more often. This provides the greatest capacity gains but needs large numbers of low cost units deployed in high traffic areas.
  • Thirdly, emerging techniques are being developed and trialled. Metrocells, seamlessly integrated Wi-Fi and HetNets all have an important part to play.

Consequences for the service provider

Network planners and operational staff are geared up for today’s network equipment size. The processes and procedures to deploy and upgrade cellsites are often manual and not easily scalable. Small cells need to be targeted to within tens of metres of the traffic hotspots to be most effective, requiring higher reporting accuracy than available with older reporting and analysis tools.

It will be a major task to deploy the 50x network capacity growth foreseen by today’s planners, but it may be an even greater challenge to change the tools, practices and processes that operate behind the scenes within the service providers to make this a reality.

To find out more about the survey, results and implications for service providers, read today’s press release about the survey, Service providers face network planning bottleneck due to huge increase in small cell deployments, or read the full report, Managing the New Mobile Data Network.

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