As the commercialization of 5G business keeps expanding, the mass demand for 5G network signal coverage is also rapidly escalating.
The frequency of 5G ranges highly between 2515MHz ~ 4900MHz. The higher the frequency is, the shorter the wavelength is and the weaker the diffraction capability is. In places where there are obstacles, the radiation range will become small and the only way to expand the radiation range is to increase the power. Therefore, on the one hand, the radiation intensity is limited by national regulations, which means that the penetration capacity is limited, and on the other hand, the diffraction capacity is so weak that 5G will have troubles when it encounters obstacles that do not turn around.
As a result, 5G small cells come into our life. Small cells are an integral part of 5G networks, without which the commercialization of 5G will be much more difficult. It is no doubt to say that the progress of small cells construction is a key factor in the success of 5G commercialization, which will redefine the competitive landscape for telecom equipment manufacturers and operators. As 5G is commercializing, focusing on small cells waits no time.
In the 2G/3G/4G era, operators have been deploying small cells, at that time the small cells were mainly traditional DAS applied to the network expansion. However, as the 5G era comes, the traditional DAS system is unable to adapt to the new demands in the era due to the increasing frequency band. Therefore, 5G small cells come up.
At present, the 5G construction of outdoor macro cells is in full swing, but operators also have to preliminarily take the 5G indoor coverage and outdoor depth coverage into consideration, which results in the new demands on coverage compensation and heat absorption of the 5G small cells. However, traditional indoor distribution system can’t meet the new challenges of the 5G era, and is facing the following problems in the development of 5G networks: 5G high frequency leads to insufficient indoor depth coverage; traditional indoor networks can’t be lightened; massive terminal deployment brings challenges on operation and maintenance; lack of accurate indoor positioning capability.
As is known, the traditional indoor coverage using passive DAS solution can only support 1T1R or 2T2R, but not meet the urgent needs of indoor high-capacity scenes for 4T4R indoor distribution scheme. The current passive DAS solution only supports a maximum frequency band of 2.7GHz, which can meet China Mobile's 2.6GHz network requirement, but not meet China Telecom and China Unicom's 3.5GHz and China Mobile’s 4.9GHz network requirements.
In addition, 5G is carrying the mission of enabling the transformation and upgrading of vertical industries, so the convergence between the communications industry and vertical industries will become deeper and deeper. In the 5G era, operators need to actively expand their business in vertical industries and change their business modes, while traditional passive DAS solutions cannot provide more services other than communications services. Compared to traditional DAS system, 5G small cells has visualized operation and maintenance, flexible expansion and other features, the channels of 5G small cells upgraded to 4T4R, can support higher single-user peak rate. As a result, global operators pay increasingly attention to the development of 5G small cells deployment.
Due to the advantages of 5G small cells, global operators have laid out the construction of small cells. From the perspective of operators’ needs, the demand for small cells should continue to grow, the hardware cost of small cells is much lower than that of macro cells, more suitable for indoor or outdoor big data hotspot areas and ultra-dense networking scenarios. The three major domestic operators have long been laying out the deployment of small cells.
In order to meet the new needs of small cells deployment in the 5G era, China Telecom believes that 5G small cells should be featured by: first, high speed and high bandwidth to adapt to the demand of large capacity; second, high flexibility, equipment is easy to deploy flexibly; third, multiple connections to meet the access of a large number of users; fourth, low latency to improve the timeliness of system feedback; fifth, high reliability, to enhance the user experience; sixth, network openness, digitalization empowers the real economy. At present, China Telecom is actively exploring solutions to achieve indoor coverage at low cost in the 5G era, and in 2019, field trials have been conducted in many places, and it is believed that some research findings will soon be formulated for network deployment and construction.
China Mobile has been studying the small cells for years. In the 4G era, China Mobile has successfully developed an extended pico base station, which significantly reduces the cost of building an indoor small cells and is now being used in the existing network on a large scale. In the 5G era, China Mobile has proposed a converged indoor distribution solution, which is featured by connecting multiple passive indoor distribution antennas to an indoor small cells to make it have the advantages of traditional DAS with low cost, low power consumption and easy expansion, as well as the advantages of small indoor base station visualization, operation and maintenance, flexible capacity expansion, etc.
China Unicom has also done a lot of exploration in the construction of small cells. According to China Unicom, there are various network demands for diverse indoor scenarios, and 5G digital indoor distribution equipment needs to support a variety of forms: large-scale scenes of high-value, high-traffic are dominated by indoor high-performance products; medium and small scenes with moderate capacity demands are dominated by indoor medium and low performance products; small micro scenes with low capacity demands require low-cost digital indoor distribution products.
China Unicom has designed digital indoor distribution products in different forms for different scenarios to form a differentiated deployment. Large-scale scenarios of high-value, high-traffic are dominated by integrated micro-RRU devices with digital operation and flexible capacity expansion; small and medium-sized scenarios with moderate capacity demand are dominated by integrated micro-RRU, traditional DAS integral solutions and extended micro cells; small-scale scenarios with low capacity demand are dominated by digital micro-distribution devices.
As operators are actively deploying 5G small cells, large-scale development of small cells is coming up, which has attracted enterprises in the industry chain to participate in the development and design of small cells products. According to incomplete statistics, there are currently more than 20 companies in the world can provide small cells products, the domestic and foreign manufacturers include Huawei, ZTE, DT Mobile, Intel, Ericsson, Nokia, New H3C, Certus, Comba Telecom, Bai Cells, TROY Information, Raisecom, etc. Although their researches on small cells research are different, they all expect to be part of the small cells market in the future.
From the perspective of global competition, there are professional small cells providers, mainstream telecom equipment manufacturers and ODM manufacturers involved in small cells. It is known that Huawei, ZTE, Ericsson and other telecom equipment manufacturers in the small cells market put more and more emphasis on the combination of "macro station, small station", providing support for operators by using its own resource advantages; traditional small cells manufacturers, such as Comba Telecom, Bai Cells is based on long-term developed technology, customers and services to consolidate their position; some antennas, RF manufacturers are also expected to transform as solution provider of small cells.
According to a new survey by market research firm ABI Research, the global indoor small cells market size will reach $1.8 billion by 2021. Small cells can not only be used to enhance indoor network coverage, but also combined with technologies such as MEC to provide better service capabilities for vertical industries. As the saying goes, "weighing a small weight weighs a thousand pounds", small cells will take up the heavy burden of enhanced signal coverage in the 5G era, and be responsible for driving up the "blue ocean" market in vertical industries. In the 5G era, small cells are about to enter a big era of development.
Although small cells market in the 5G era is tempting, due to the large number of entrants and from the perspective of market competition, the 5G era small cells market is the "blue sea" or "red sea" is not yet known. Some experts said that the public network field of mobile communication services have long entered the "red sea" stage, while the value-added services for the private network field is still in the "blue sea" stage. Therefore, more and more small cells enterprises in the initial product design process, pay great attention to the vertical industry for the development of service capabilities and make full preparation for the "gold" vertical industry market.
At the same time, there are problems behind the booming market for small cells. Experts said, although the 5G era digitalized indoor distribution is the trend, also faces some challenges, of which the essential problem is the high cost of micro station construction by the current leading equipment manufacturers, resulting in high pressure of operator in the network construction. In order to reduce costs, operators introduced extended micro stations, but also brought a series of problems in the network deployment, such as introducing a large number of manufacturers, uneven strength, network management is not unified, bringing challenges to operation and maintenance, as well as indoor and outdoor collaboration with the main equipment manufacturers.
However, there are more solutions than problems, and it is believed that with the joint efforts of operators and industry chain enterprises, the products and performance of 5G small cells will continue to be improved, thus providing a great boost in the network coverage and capacity improvement in the 5G era.
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