DragonWave joins race for microcell solutions

If anyone wants a witness that in-building cellular often coverage needs a boost, Greg Friesen of Canadian wireless backhaul maker DragonWave Inc. would be glad to testify.

This week Friesen was foiled by static when he tried to talk to Network World Canada on a handset about the Ottawa company’s new line of microcell radios from a Chicago conference centre. The Avenue platform is designed to help carriers with indoor and outdoor coverage problems because their macrocell networks aren’t keeping up with capacity demands.

“I, unfortunately, was a perfect example of that,” Friesen said when the call was made later on a landline.

In many cities, large-size (or macro) cells have been able to cope with cellular traffic. But in an increasing number of crowded areas they can’t handle the load, especially the data.

The solution, say equipment makers, are microcells. DragonWave’s Avenue line is the latest to be announced. Earlier this month Ottawa’s BelAir Networks announced its 2100 Metrocell.

Exactly what is a microcell isn’t clear – some manufacturers call them picocells or metrocells – but the idea of a small network with perhaps a dozen cells that connects to a larger cell is growing. Some units offer only backhaul, while others include slots for base station cards.

The Avenue line has two units:

–the Avenue Link is a compact (almost 10 inches square and 7 inches deep) for mounting on poles or walls with a 5-inch flat antenna that backhauls to a DragonWave Horizon Ethernet microwave radio (which can then link to the cellular network). It transmits on a range of licenced bands from 24 to 60 GHz. It does need an external power supply.

It can be deployed in many ways including ring, hub and spoke, constrained mesh, point to point and daisy chain topologies.

The Link is available now, at a list price of $8,500.

–the Avenue Site, pictured, which will be available by the end of the year, is a larger box — about 16-in. wide by 36-in. high by 11-in. deep.

But it’s an entire microcell that includes a slot for a cellular base station card from a number of manufacturers that can transmit to the macrocell as well as backhaul, its own power supply, an Ethernet switch. There are three mini-antennas inside that can point to different links.

The Avenue line is designed to be easy to install and have a low profile, to meet the demands of municipalities that want to minimize the number of boxes hanging from poles and walls.

The Avenue Site is similar to BelAir’s 2100. However, Friesen said the BelAir uses unlicenced carrier Wi-Fi, whereas the Avenue line uses licenced bands for backhaul offering 400 Mbps full-duplex throughput. “Our belief in talking to operators is those types of levels are required (by them).

Yankee Group telecom analyst Jennifer Pigg noted that backhaul is likely to be the most expensive part of a microcell solution. Ideally, she said, a solution not only includes backhaul but also cellular radios. So the Avenue Site is typical of what manufacturers will increasingly release, she said.

Eventually, she added, the units will get smaller. DragonWave [TSX: DWI; Nasdaq: DRW] is already promising it will do that with the Avenue Site by eventually offering a model without the cellular base station capability.

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