The rise of intelligent small cells

Posted by Will Franks

Will Franks, Ubiquisys CTO and co-founder, talks about the evolution of Ubiquisys’ intelligent small cells

Intelligent small cells – that was our starting point when we kick-started Ubiquisys in 2004. Miniature cells that dynamically adapt to the changing conditions to provide a valuable low cost complement to the macro network. We called them femtocells, technology we pioneered that has become the foundation for a new generation of technology – public access small cells and small cell SONs. But more on them in a moment.

Our founding vision arose from us as mobile users and what we needed. Cellular network performance needed to catch up with our phones’ capabilities – not hanging out of windows for coverage or waiting forever for web pages to load. To achieve this we had to invent a new industry as well as some very smart innovations. We went ahead and solved the cost, scalability, usability, and the flaky backhaul challenges that the cellular industry of the time had not begun to address. At the core of our inventions were miniature cellular base stations that were intelligent enough to think for themselves – to enable dense deployments without interference problems, and to enable autonomous self-organising networks (SONs) and heterogeneous networks (hetnets). This was the birth of the femtocell; now grown up and known as the small cell.

2007 saw the birth of the iPhone and Android and so began our universal addiction to always connected smart devices. This has placed demands on mobile networks that not even the bidders for the 3G licences back in 2000 had predicted. How do mobile service providers build capacity in the limited spectrum that they have and at a cost they can afford? Fortunately, the intelligent small cell, based on what we had invented for femtocells, has proved to be the right solution.

But with the move to public access small cells, intelligence becomes a broader subject and several new challenges have needed to be addressed.

  • Delivering high availability
    Service providers are rightly demanding that public small cells match the KPIs of the macro network. A small cell, with limited capacity and often sharing commodity backhaul, needs dynamic and autonomous techniques to maintain service quality amongst users and to balance its workload between surrounding cells. We have achieved this, led by SoftBank in Japan and Korea Telecom, where we already have over 50,000 public small cells delivering high capacity voice and data in public hotspots and not-spots.
  • Delivering multi-technology
    The small cell is a junction of technologies, comprising typically of 3G, 4G and WiFi plugged into an internet connection. This blend of licensed and unlicensed technologies is what we are delivering now with our own innovation recipes that are continuing to keep us as market leaders.
  • Hetnet compatibility
    And now the intelligent indoor small cells, based on Iuh standards from the femtocell world, are joining the bigger network picture. Small cells and macro cells are becoming increasingly dynamic, and increasingly coordinated by central SON systems that in turn dynamically adapt the policies that each network needs to follow. Intelligent small cells, and local SONs of small cells, make autonomous decisions based on local conditions, and central SON management like that provided by Intucell (recently acquired by Cisco) provides the umbrella dynamic self organisation across the macro and the small cell domains.
  • Smart cells – the edge cloud
    Working with Intel, Ubiquisys has pioneered the integration of a powerful computing platform into its intelligent small cells and the cloud based management and delivery of applications to the edge cloud, securely. This is important for two reasons. First, it provides a place where cell intelligence can operate and evolve without constraints. Second, and more importantly, it moves cloud applications and content to the very edge of the network, closer to mobile users. We’re all familiar with the performance benefits of Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) in the fixed internet, which store and serve content closer to the edge of the network. Smart cells provide these benefits to mobile users, and the performance benefits are even greater because the content is closer and speed restrictions in small cell backhaul are eliminated.

We’ve built and evolved our vision of intelligent small cells, and judging by the speed at which they are now being deployed around the world, it’s clear our vision is now shared. It’s especially encouraging to see that this smart cell innovation is now being adopted by leading service providers, not just in small cells but in all cells.

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