Small Cells

A new class of  “base stations” has emerged, called femtocells and/or pico cells. These devices are the size of a WiFi base station and provide indoor wireless operator quality coverage and service to your mobile phone or device, often in operator licensed bands, using existing broadband Internet connections (see Figure 2), unlike WiFi access points that use a shared spectrum.

Key points:

Low-cost – Femtocells are currently mostly offered as a consumer purchase through mobile operators, although some offer them through their customer support process.

User/self installed – These devices are designed to be installed by consumers and activated through wireless service providers and incorporate features such as self provisioning and self integration.

Install anywhere– Small cells transmit at 1-200 milliwatts, similar to Wi-Fi access points, and have adaption features that reduce interference and self optimize.

Broadband-connected – All connectivity to the home network is via Internet protocol (IP) using flat base station architectures.

Market driver: 

Wireless mobile networks were initially designed and built primarily for mobility w/outdoor on street level coverage. Many coverage holes too expensive to fill. (Typically the price of the macro site is more than the projected revenue from that area.)

Data growth has increased the cost structure of operators without equivalent relief in their RAN cost structure for serving their need for spectrum re-use and data coverage.


A very attractive technology solution for providers, IP connected small cells haven’t provided enough value to be adopted by mainstream users. Unfortunately, operators quickly point out there is an economic barrier to realizing the femtocell business case. No sale: end user data shows purchasing a coverage enhancement only device is not attractive. The other value limiting challenges include complexity, operator exclusivity, low flexibility, and poor support all hampering the small cells market.

US Deployments:

Operator Manufacturer (Device) Core (FGW) Device (FAP) Estimated Units 1Q2012
ATT ip.access/Cisco Cisco FCG,Kineto, Genband, Ericsson IMS 3G Microcell (WCDMA + HSPA) 500K
Sprint Samsung Ubicell Samsung Airrave (1x) 200K
Airvana Hubub IMS Airrave 2 (1x+EVDO) 250K
Verizon Samsung Ubicell Samsung Network Extender (1X) 250K
Network Extender 2 (1X+EVDO) 200K
Cellcom Airwalk EdgePoint Starent, Taqua/Tatara, Mavenir TRIALS ONLY