Electronic Design

Small-Cell Wireless Networks Roll Out, Ready or Not

Network equipment companies are scrambling to address the growing radio access network (RAN) gap between the explosive demand for mobile data and the capabilities of today’s 3G and even tomorrow’s 4G networks. Even if every 3G macrocell tower were immediately replaced with a 4G macrocell tower, the exponential increase in demand would render the 4G mobile network overcapacity again within a year or so. Carriers will need to augment the macrocell network with smaller cells (femtocells, picocells, microcells, etc.) to successfully surf the coming mobile data tsunami.

The new “heterogeneous” topology, a mixture of macrocells and smaller cells, introduces three new and significant RAN complexities. First, many of the small cells will be “nomadic” in nature, i.e., moving around, coming online and offline in an ad-hoc manner. Second, there will be a lot of them. And third, many of them will interfere with each other, in some cases with 100% overlap (e.g., a femtocell nested entirely within a macrocell footprint). Managing the associated intercell interference and spectrum reuse issues will become a major challenge and will require advanced, real-time, fully automated RAN intelligence.

Current RAN intelligence solutions, which are based on the 3GPP self-organizing network (SON) standard, only address part of the problem, specifically the connection to the network upon startup. One of the major trends of 2011 that will help these small-cell networks become more prevalent is advanced SON technology that acts as the network’s central nervous system, integrating RAN management and intelligence. It is designed to manage the RAN in real time after initial setup and provide ongoing intelligence to mitigate related operational issues.

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