Operators hoping for small cell "sweet spots"

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Innovation in the small cell market, including a device that could hit the sweet spot between distributed antenna systems (DAS) and femtocells, could overcome issues of providing coverage to customers, the Small Cell World Summit heard today.

As the second day of the trade event got under way in London, delegates heard of issues regarding coverage. Orange's Benoit Graves, the operator's Small Cell Project Manager, said European operators were somewhat spoilt compared to their US counterparts in having enough spectrum to cope in the short term.

"Within city centres, the question is the balance between macro and small cells as complementing one another. It's cheaper to use the spectrum that you have on the macro layer first," explained.

Nevertheless, the operator has deployed femtocells in markets such as France and Poland. He said the biggest issue is dealing with the "homogenised congestion" around high streets and residential areas.

David Orloff, Director of Small Cells at US operator AT&T, said the reason why it has been installing small cells at volumes is mostly because of coverage. He commented: "There's a very high percentage of in-building encironments that don't have coverage. By installing small cells we are increasing coverage and offloading macro capacity."

According to Orloff, DAS is a very appealing answer to coverage issues but it is very limited in its use cases, because of the cost involved. He said: "DAS gives a high quality solution but it's hideously expensive. You have to be pretty sure you want to spend that amount of money before rolling it out."

Orange's Graves agreed but added he was confident that the expected demand for small cells in the coming years could lead to a sea-change in the type of products offered.

He said: "Where we have a need for innovation is somewhere in the middle. DAS is very expensive so you need to be scalable in the like of train stations. Where it's challenging is in-building and we have had to say 'no' to customers because it's too expensive. Femtocells are good but only up to a good point.

"What we need is something cheaper than DAS and that can do multiple operators...We do see a lot more [innovation] now but in the next few years we will see a lot more in this area."