The race for coverage is over. network capacity is the new competition for Wireless Service Providers, and for the major players, it’s ‘game on’.
Adding Network Capacity
With the 4G LTE rollout still rolling and 5G preparation underway, the industry is concentrating on network capacity to move the massive amounts of data transmissions we’ll need. According to CommScope there are three ways to add capacity to a network; “buying more spectrum, making that spectrum more efficient, and ‘densifying’ the network.”
Buying more spectrum
In early 2017 The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) concluded its first incentive spectrum auction. The auction redistributed broadcast owned spectrum bands to telecom companies for wireless data networks. The FCC sold 70 megahertz of spectrum into the broadband marketplace, earning $19.8 billion. The big winner was T-Mobile, spending $8 billion to buy 1,525 licenses, or 45% of all the low-band (below 1 GHz) spectrum auctioned, according to T-Mobile president and CEO John Legere. AT&T bid $910 million for 23 licenses, while Verizon did not bid at all, presumably having acquired sufficient low-band capabilities in the 2008 FCC auction.
While smaller carriers are scooping up FCC brokered low-band spectrum popular for LTE-Advanced networks, larger carriers are quietly acquiring high-frequency millimeter-wave spectrum, expected to be the backbone of 5G, through private acquisitions. In May 2017, Verizon won a heated $3.1 billion bidding war over AT&T for a company called Straight Path, owner of extensive 28 and 39 GHz fixed and mobile wireless spectrum licenses.
Making spectrum more efficient
Larger carriers have been vocal about their efforts to exploit new technologies and techniques to improve spectrum efficiency. Both Verizon and AT&T practice Carrier Aggregation, where up to five LTE-Advanced carriers, with up to 20MHz each, can share transmission bandwidths to improve data rates. Also common is multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) antenna technology for wireless communications where multiple transmitters and receivers transfer more data than single antenna versions.
Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam cites proprietary research that enables Fixed 5G transmission without line of sight limitations, removing the issue of foliage and structural impediments. CommScope recently reported that Verizon is also close to “bringing channel bonding to NG-PON2 [which] will finally allow it to increase bandwidth on an access fiber network without also changing out the equipment that sits in the field.”
AT&T’s G.fast technology enables them to squeeze out higher, fiber-speed transmission rates over existing copper lines in order to better use their existing infrastructure. They are also concentrating on Fixed Wireless Internet (FWI) to provide connection for rural homes that have slow or no internet connectivity. Future research through “Project AirGig, a transformative technology from AT&T Labs could one day deliver low-cost, multi-gigabit wireless internet speeds over power lines.”
Perhaps the most interesting of the three approaches to adding network capacity, and where C2 Systems is most closely aligned, is network densification. Whereas Macro cell tower technology provides a long-range, point-to-point and concurrent type of transmission, network densification is all about a holistic web of shorter connections, with frequent and repeated spectrum repurposing. Small cells and distributed antenna systems (DAS) have emerged as the preferred types of communications infrastructure to make that happen.
According to Radio Magazine, AT&T’s president of technology operations, Bill Hogg, has openly declared that the Tower Model is unsustainable and is looking for alternative infrastructure partners. In an interview with FierceWireless, Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure was quoted as saying “We just did an alliance with a cable company in which we were basically able to put our small cells into the cable infrastructure and be able to generate amazing results,”
Verizon is taking network densification very seriously. They are adding centralized radio access network (C-RAN) small cells, and outdoor DAS (oDAS) in record numbers. In parts of San Francisco for instance, they report that their C-RAN small cell deployment increased network capacity by 400%. In addition to claiming the largest small cell deployment in the country, with small cells on utility poles and traffic lights everywhere, they are aggressively laying new high-density fiber to create a hyper-dense grid-like infrastructure, super packed with capacity. They are reporting that in their Boston fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) infrastructure build out (possibly their last FTTH effort), they are laying 1700 strand fiber-optic cable to boost capacity and lower latency; a massive improvement compared to the 6 or 8 strand fiber used when they first deployed FiOS.
Monitoring small cell networks
Two factors challenge wireless service providers when it comes to monitoring small cell systems; the lack of equipment uniformity and the quantity of small cells needed to densify an area. Network monitoring software with strong device integration philosophies like C2 Systems, will find a competitive advantage. The ability to quickly add new manufacturers, new technologies and new protocols is valuable to integrators looking for adaptability.
Scalability is also important. The sheer volume of units needed to create a network grid poses real management challenges. Monitoring hundreds of small cells rather than tens of Macro cell units can overwhelm some network monitoring software. As small cells play an increasingly important role our telecommunications infrastructure, integrated and scalable monitoring will play an important role in maintaining our shared network, helping to increase capacity and bring the network closer to the user for exceptional quality of experience (QoE).