Driven by the growing influx of mobile broadband traffic and increased network coverage requirements, wireless carriers are looking to move away from traditional macrocell based networks. According to the latest report from SNS Research, wireless carriers have instead begun to invest in a heterogeneous network (HetNet) infrastructure. Their report is predicting that macrocell alternatives will account for over 80% of all mobile broadband traffic by 2020.
Annual spending on HetNets is expected to reach $40 billion in the next five years. This is due in large part to the open-source nature of the technology. A heterogeneous network is defined as a patchwork quilt of wireless coverage that incorporates a multitude of access technologies. Among these are strategically deployed small cells, carrier Wi-Fi, and distributed antenna systems (DASs).
Usually installed in small buildings and public areas, these networks are designed for specific coverage and capacity requirements. As opposed to macrocell networks, which depend on a series of large cellular base stations that often interfere with each other, the systems in a heterogeneous network interact to extend wireless coverage over a large area. They can support a number of wireless vendors and technologies in the same place and at the same time.
This heterogeneous design has provided fuel to new technology in the 5-GHz unlicensed spectrum, also known as LTE-U. Originally developed by Qualcomm, the technology is an alternative to Wi-Fi that leverages small cell networks and carrier aggregation. Between 2016 and 2020, LTE-U small cell shipments are expected to grow to nearly $2 billion annually, according to the SNS Research report.
As wireless carriers begin to move toward these networks, they will also invest in Centralized-RAN or C-RAN architecture, according to SNS Research. This is a network that connects a large number of distributed radio receivers to a centralized baseband unit (BBU) pool, providing high bandwidth and low-latency communications.
Until recently, the C-RAN architecture has been used only to connect large cellular base stations, but several vendors have started to offer a small cell C-RAN deployment. Airvana, for instance, recently installed a small cell C-RAN system in Gross Coliseum at Fort Hays State University in Kansas. Optimistic that this growth will continue to the end of the decade, the SNS report is predicting that C-RAN investments will account for nearly 35% of the wireless market by 2020.
The shift to a HetNet infrastructure will be a volatile one. The market is expected to be highly fragmented in the early stages of this transition, as macrocell vendors attempt to muscle into the market with small cell specialists. SNS Research speculates that a string of acquisitions by large companies, including Nokia, will consolidate the value chain.