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Small cells, big difference: how Qualcomm and Sprint are testing ways to improve coverage in dense areas

News by Andrew Kameka on Wednesday March 05, 2014.

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Anyone who ventures into the densely populated areas of major U.S. cities can tell you that cellular coverage can be spotty if not downright useless at times. Qualcomm and Sprint are in the process of fixing that issue with small cell sites, flexible supplementary networks designed to improve coverage in a small area where high demand leads to low performance. The aim is to make it so the wireless connection that makes devices smart aren't crippled by heavy demand at large gatherings like trade shows or a downtown core where people frequently travel.

Qualcomm and Sprint have entered into phase two of a trial designed to improve network performance through small cell networks. At the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in Phoenix this weekend, the companies worked with NASCAR to test how the Qualcomm UltraSON feature might increase the reliability and speeds of wireless networks. The Phoenix Race is a prime example of how large gatherings can create troublesome mobile experiences due to the thousands of people and tons of equipment necessary to run the event creating signal interference. I attended a pre-race demonstration and discovered that the pits, the area where racing crews tend to their cars and submit their vehicles for inspection, is hard enough on networks.

Consider this information explained to me by Steve Worling, senior director of IT at NASCAR: there were 5,000 people in the racing area associated with the 43 cars that raced at the Sprint Cup the day that I attended. Each team had wireless connections sending real-time information from cars and garages back to their headquarters, and that creates interference that makes reliable coverage very difficult.

This is where small cells come into play. Networks typically meet coverage needs through macrocells that reach a wider area. However, when those networks have to deal with the crush of thousands of users suddenly looking up race information, streaming video, or uploading pictures, the demand proves too much to handle. Small cells provide a way to introduce a contained network to handle offloading the extra demand in that area.

Airspan Air Synergy 2000 LTE-Advanced Pico Base Stations
Airspan Air Synergy 2000 LTE-Advanced Pico Base Stations

Qualcomm, Sprint, and NASCAR set-up a testing bed at the Phoenix International Raceway on March 1 and 2. The trial included 31 Airspan Air Synergy 2000 LTE-Advanced Pico Base Stations spread throughout the garage area. Within each base is the Qualcomm UltraSON chipset that contains a Self Organizing Network. Algorithms in UltraSON allow the system to recognize where data is most needed and handoff the traffic more efficiently. The bases are designed to regulate traffic without needing to be micromanaged by operators.

Cell on wheels (COW) trucks are often used as a solution for the problem, but a network can't have trucks driving around everywhere to handle high demands as efficiently as they could with a small cell network. Cows also do not provide the flexibility of a dense small cell network, which is easy to install and can be left up for longer periods of time. I saw the difference between the two solutions side-by-side at the race. Devices connected to the cow trucks at the raceway topped out at 3 Mbps at their best and were below 1 Mbps at other times. The small cell test network reached as high as 22 Mbps. The two formats also differ in the amount of area that they can reach and the bandwidth they can support. Normalizing the comparison to gauge how each does over a similar distance, the small cell site offered 43 times higher capacity at the raceway.

The trouble with this system is that it's all up to the carriers. I was impressed by the demonstration because it showed how small cell networks can greatly improve coverage, but these are trials. Without carriers taking the extra step to implement these targeted networks in anticipation of heavy demand, you'll still run into dead zones. I had multiple experiences last year where my Sprint Galaxy S4 slowed to a crawl in downtown New York, forcing me to switch to another network. The same has been true of T-Mobile when I've been to certain areas of Las Vegas or San Francisco during large events, especially once mobile hotspots turn on and create poor signal conditions.

Cellular on wheels (COW) trucks
Cellular on wheels (COW) trucks

The technology behind small cells is intriguing because it addresses the issue of signal interference and high capacity demands; we just need carriers to see the value in that and deliver on the promise of the technology. Most important, it's not just a temporary solution. Qualcomm says these networks can be used to enhance coverage in dense residential or commercial areas on a consistent basis as well.

For what it's worth, getting carriers on board is precisely why these trials are conducted, according to Qualcomm Principal Engineer Christophe Chevallier. Sprint already uses small cells, but not the specific kind that Qualcomm demonstrated during the NASCAR event. During the demo, Chevallier said:

"If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere. We believe that when data demand increases by 1,000x, we can't solve that by putting macro sites everywhere. We can do that by putting small cites over and over again."

The NASCAR garage area was chosen because it is such a demanding area for wireless traffic, so the strength of these results should be further proof of concept for how UltraSON can work in dense areas. Sprint is a partner in these trials and it has just as much incentive to want to improve its network as any other carrier. There's currently no timeline for if and when we might see this in your area.

Disclosure: Qualcomm paid for me to attend the Sprint Cup Series in order to see the on-site demonstration.

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About the author

Andrew Kameka
Andrew is based in Miami, Florida.

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