Cellular network congestion is an ailment suffered by a number of carriers, mostly in the world’s biggest cities. But operators are finding macro base stations, which can cover several kilometres, just aren’t good enough in urban areas.
Small cell solutions – sometimes called picocells – with smaller coverage areas are increasingly being offered by major network equipment makers to supplement their macrocells to increase coverage and network speeds.
This week Ottawa’s BelAir Networks announced what it believes is a small cell solution good enough to compete with products being offered by leading network equipment makers – because it includes their gear.
The BelAir2100 Metrocell is a compact integrated 4G/3G/Wi-Fi unit that includes wireless backhaul.
What makes it unique, says company CTO Stephen Rayment (pictured), is that the LTE/HSPA/CDMA radios inside come from major equipment makers – which he wouldn’t name. But having them provide the licenced radios means carriers can be assured the 2100 will be compatible with the base stations they already have.
The 2100 will be sold either through network equipment makers or direct from BelAir.
“It’s a very exciting step,” Rayment said in a telephone interview, because BelAir is best known for its carrier-grade Wi-Fi access points. “The licenced band addition really moves us into the next tier … It opens a new market for us beyond carrier Wi-Fi.”
That remains to be seen. The 2100 goes into carrier trials shortly and will be on sale early next year. Prices are expected to be around $3,000 a station.
Equipment makers like Alcatel-Lucent, Huawei Technologies Co. and LM Ericsson have their own small cell strategies. But as Darly Schoolar, principal analyst for telecom network infrastructure at Ovum pointed out, they aren’t as familiar with mounting small base stations on walls or poles as outdoor Wi-Fi companies. So partnering with BelAir has advantages.
For BelAir’s part, he said, the partnerships with bigger equipment makers gives carriers assurance the 2100 will interoperate with their macro networks.
One problem, Schoolar added, is that the market for small cells is still new and unproven. There’s even confusion of what a small cell is: Some equipment makers define it by power output, others by the type of backhaul or the form factor.
Whatever the definition, Rayment said most carriers that operate in large cities will need them – even Canadian carriers who declare that the network problems here aren’t as a bad as they are in New York City.
“There will no doubt be Canadian interest in this,” Rayment said. “Do you really think we don’t have large amounts of congestion in downtown Toronto?”
Excluding antennas that look like long office florescent light tubes, the 2100 is a box that measures 13-in. high by 9-in. wide by 3-in. deep. It has a power output of up to 1 watt that will cover about 300 metres.
The Wi-Fi capability “helps the carrier keep his arms around his precious subscriber, even when they go off the radar with a Wi-Fi only device,” Rayment said.
For flexibility, the included backhaul connectivity to the carrier’s main network can be either wired (over unlicenced 5 GHz spectrum) or wireless Ethernet.
The all-in-one design should appeal to carriers who have to negotiate with municipalities for every base station they erect, Rayment said.