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Ericsson talks small cells but only extends AIR

Promises 70% better throughput with half the equipment, for its new antenna integrated radio base station unit


Published: 13 February, 2013

READ MORE: Ericsson | Infrastructure | LTE

After several years when it sat aloof from the buzz about small cells, Ericsson says their time has come. Hans Wibergh, head of the networks division, said this month that Ericsson would ship its first commercial small cells this summer, and that the age of the metrozone had arrived. However, in its warm-up event for Mobile World Congress, the Swedish giant did not actually unveil a metrocell, concentrating on expanding its AIR range of distributed base stations.

We will wait to see whether Ericsson unveils a true metrocell - a compact unit based on a system-on-chip, with radio, antenna and baseband combined - at MWC, perhaps even with a roadmap to integrate BelAir Wi-Fi in full. For now, its main contribution to the deconstructed RAN centers on its AIR (antenna integrated radio) line, which provides a low-footprint unit for the cell site (though this can serve large as well as small cells). The radio/antenna is linked to a remote server where baseband processing for many cells is combined and virtualized.

The latest offering in the family is the AIR 32, which allows operators to add LTE or HSPA(+) without deploying additional antennas or remote radio heads (RRHs) on cell sites. The new model claims up to 70% higher throughput than its predecessors by implementing 4x4 MIMO antenna arrays, and up to 25% better indoor coverage, says Ericsson. It supports multiple active frequencies, reducing radio equipment by 50%.

AIR is a key element of Ericsson's network modernization offering, which has been at the core of its mobile revenues in the past year. T-Mobile USA is using the platform in its own complex network transformation, which involves moving its HSPA services from the AWS band to some refarmed PCS frequencies (while leaving GSM in operation, at least for a while), and then deploying LTE in the vacated AWS spectrum. That will bring TMo's 3G and 4G networks into the same bands commonly used by its rivals, opening up better roaming and device procurement opportunities, including the prospect of an iPhone.

TMo is currently using AIR 21 and will evaluate its new stablemate. CTO Neville Ray commented that AIR "offers a fast track way of getting mobile broadband services such as LTE into the marketplace. We can save months in terms of deployment with this product on a per-site basis. In addition, there are many performance gains and benefits in radio performance that will enhance the user experience of mobile broadband services."

Ericsson is a supplier in all the four US national cellcos' LTE roll-outs, and the others, especially AT&T and Sprint, will be pushing it to support their small cell strategies (AT&T plans to roll out 40,000 such units this year).

Initially, Wibergh sees public metrocells as an extension of the traditional network, with the network passing users from the macro layer to a small cell to gain greater capacity and quality of service. The next stage will be for devices to link to multiple cells, including Wi-Fi, simultaneously and without interference, one of the key goals of LTE-Advanced standards and the evolution of HetNet.

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