NF: With the acquisition of Picochip Ltd., Mindspeed is clearly broadening its focus beyond the more traditional network infrastructure to include smaller cells. How do you envision the network infrastructure of the next five to ten years?
RB: During recent years, wireless phones have become the preferred mode of communication while landline access has decreased. At the same time, most cellular service subscribers now also use the mobile Internet, and many new broadband mobile devices including smartphones, tablets, and laptops with 3G capabilities have been commercialized for applications such as social networking and video on demand. The majority of current 3G cellular networks only support data rates of, at best, a few megabits per second (Mbps) under low-mobility conditions. This is not enough for carriers to support today’s escalating growth in mobile device deployment, usage and associated network traffic, while maintaining a competitive price/performance model and ensuring sufficient network performance.
The solution for delivering all of the extra traffic is to deploy many more base stations, closer to the users: the small cell network. Long-Term Evolution (LTE) includes the concept of the Heterogeneous Network (HetNet), which allows networks to efficiently mix traditional, big base stations and small cells. However, for small cells to be sufficiently economical, they need to be cheap to build, and will rely heavily on dual-mode System-on-Chip (SoC) integration. This is a pattern we have seen before—in computers, with the shift from big mainframes to PCs, and in broadband, with the trend to push intelligence to the edge. As in these earlier transitions, the industry will use standardized reference designs and SoCs to drive the economics of high volume.
The Small Cell Forum recently announced a rapid uptake of its small cell LTE application platform interfaces (APIs), showing that the vendor community is rapidly preparing the technology to meet the operator demand. This rapid adoption is being driven by widespread LTE small cell commitments from operators around the world including China Mobile, Vodafone, SK Telecom, and NTT DoCoMo.
NF: What role will small cells in particular play? What kind of data rates do you foresee for these small cells in support of the wireless “connected home”? And do you think that home security systems, such as motion detectors and alarm systems, will be part of the functionality of a small cell in a wireless home?
RB: The adoption of small cells is one of the key prerequisites for LTE deployment. The only way to increase data capacity is to improve the spectrum efficiency of radio technologies while also reducing cell sizes. In addition to helping fuel LTE network deployment, small-cell solutions will also deliver additional value in the wireless connected home. Cellular coverage in the home has always been a challenge because of the combination of high 3G frequencies, high data rates, large cell sizes, and signal impediments inside the home caused by issues such as attenuation from walls. LTE uses even higher frequencies, and more complex coding and modulation schemes. Small cells will solve these coverage problems while offering data rates of tends of Mbps for a variety of broadband applications. It is also likely that small-cell technology will merge with wireline hubs, routers and gateways in the home, which are already being used to provision security, home automation, energy management and other services on a single platform.
NF: Can you provide numbers on how many small cells are currently in use?
RB: Infonetics Research reports that the small cell installed base is widespread and growing fast. Picochip has been the leader in small cell SoC shipments, having shipped more than one million 3G product units with associated physical-layer (PHY) software. According to ABI Research, 4.3 million small cells (including femtocells, picocells and microcells) will be shipped in 2012, rising to 36.8 million shipments in 2016, valued at $20.4 billion.
NF: What about the number or percentage offered by carriers for individual residences? Have they started to be used more widely?
RB: ABI Research finds that residential and enterprise models currently dominate small cell shipments with 62% and 30% respectively. ABI Research’s data suggests that by 2016, indoor small cells will be 94% of total shipments and outdoor small cells will make up 64% of the revenue. There are many benefits to small cell adoption in the home, including providing a means for carriers to improve service quality. A Parks Associates survey found that 41% of mobile users experiencing dropped calls on a daily basis are likely to switch providers within the next 12 months; 28% of those experiencing dropped calls on a weekly basis are likely to churn. There were similar responses for those with poor voice quality, also.
Operators are starting to have significant promotions for residential small cells. According to Infonetics, Sprint is one of the leading operators for femtocells, with a policy of free devices for any customer with bad service. Another example is OPTUS in Australia, a mobile-only operator that competes with Telstra as the traditional incumbent with both fixed plus mobile. As a competitive technique, OPTUS offers with its femtocell free unlimited calls from your cell phone at home, without counting towards your bucket. As their ads put it, “who needs a fixed line?” FREE in France has perhaps the best broadband offering in the Western world—it is now integrating femtocells with its set-top box and a very aggressive pricing plan.
NF: How do you see a combination of network technologies, ranging from small cells to the more traditional cellular infrastructure, serving fourth-generation (4G) technologies?
RB: As mentioned earlier, the LTE specifications include the concept of the Heterogeneous Network, comprised of many different types of base stations. HetNets will help carriers to avoid exclusive reliance on large macro base stations wherever they need coverage. Instead, smaller cells can be deployed either by the mobile operators or end customers to deliver additional capacity in those locations where it is needed.
NF: Do you think this model can also aid the rollouts of more entry-level services in rural and hard-to-reach areas?
RB: Yes. Small cells can deliver capacity by breaking urban areas into smaller coverage units—or they can extend service to under-served “not spot” or rural areas that have sparse coverage. In the UK, Vodafone has actually used this as a feature of its advertising: guaranteeing the best network.
NF: Both Mindspeed and Picochip are semiconductor-focused companies. What similarities do you have in terms of your technical offerings?
RB: A key rationale behind Mindspeed’s acquisition of Picochip was the high level of synergies—including technology and customers—between the two companies. Picochip has the same customers that leverage Mindspeed’s wireline products, so the company already has a great channel into these customers including Alcatel-Lucent, Nokia Siemens, Huawei, and major Japanese OEMs. Both companies also have mature platforms based on a multi-core SoC architecture using ARM processors. Picochip has shipped more than 1 million 3G product units with associated field-proven PHY software, and Mindspeed has won nearly 30 customer designs to date for its Transcede platform. By offering the two companies’ small-cell technologies in a single, market-leading multi-mode platform, Mindspeed will enable wireless carriers to support both 3G and LTE in a single unit, dramatically improving their business case by delivering twice the benefit at half the traditional per-node opex and capex costs.