Small Cells Solution to Spectrum Crisis?

by Matt Klassen on February 8, 2013

Over the last several years I’ve covered a number of possible responses to the looming spectrum crisis…and none of them have involved acquiring more of the valuable wireless resource. Whether it’s encouraging government spectrum management, treating the extant bandwidth as a finite natural resource of sorts, or pooling all available spectrum and allowing carriers to access only what they need, there are certainly solutions out there, just none of them are terribly popular in light of our insatiable capitalist pursuits.

But its looks like AT&T has listened, at least in part, to some of the possible solutions being bandied about, as Ma Bell revealed earlier this week yet another piece of the company’s patchwork spectrum plan: small cell technology.

Operating like a 3G/4G wireless hot spot, AT&T’s plan is to employ these small cell stations at key areas across the national network, helping the company’s larger network handle more data traffic and effectively shoring up the network’s vulnerable weak spots. So is this the spectrum solution we’ve been waiting for?

While its doubtful small cell technology will do anything to assuage AT&T’s ongoing hunt for available spectrum, it’s at least a sign that Ma Bell and its competitors are employing a multi-faceted approach to this complex spectrum problem.

As mentioned, small cells work both to bolster and bandage nationwide 3G/4G/Wi-Fi networks, (PDF)  increasing network coverage in areas were traditional coverage has been weak, working alongside traditional cell towers, even replacing them when required. By installing small cells in key locations, such as buildings or busy outdoor spaces like parks, AT&T will be able to broaden its blanket coverage, allowing the network to handle more devices at once, thus allowing more people to connect to wireless networks using smartphones, tablets, and computers.

Further, as AT&T’s blog post explains on this matter, “small cells work to more efficiently use spectrum, which is a benefit to our network overall,” bolstering the company’s micro or localized networks in certain regions. Of course the company is quick to explain that small cell will not replace the need to acquire more spectrum or help to “densify” the company’s macro, or nationwide, network.

While honestly I don’t see this technology helping much in dense urban centres, particularly given the fact that the best small cell device can only connect 64 devices simultaneously, it is certainly a solution that will assist rural areas where network coverage is spotty at best. Further, it will allow companies like AT&T to broaden their network coverage across outdoor spaces, meaning soon ubiquitous network connection may no longer be a pipedream.

Building on the success of recent small cell tests, AT&T has also announced its intention to deploy this burgeoning technology nationwide, with 40,000 units scheduled to be in service by 2015.

That said, while small cell technology isn’t a solution to the wireless data crisis per se, it is at least an encouraging sign that traditional spectrum gluts like AT&T acknowledge that more efficient use of their current spectrum resources is needed, helping carriers effectively respond to our societies ever-growing need for network connection.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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