Virtualisation next on Small Cell Forum’s in-tray, Chair denies telcos to blame for fragmentation

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Virtualisation is the latest area the Small Cells Forum has turned its attention to, as its Chair said that telcos' should not be blamed for fragmentation in the move to reach 5G. 

The industry body has published a new virtualisation white paper in an attempt to bring a unified approach to the technology.

It is the third intervention the SCF has made during the past month, after it called for greater clarity regarding HetNet regulation and warned fragmentation risks derailing 5G.

Release 8 is the SCF's attempt to break from what it has seen is the norm for virtualisation deployments to date. It argues RAN virtualisation projects "have mainly been vendor proprietary, risking fragmentation and delaying progress", which stops operators from truly taking advantage of the potential of the technology.

At the heart of Release 8 is an open interface specification that the forum says splits a small cell into physical and virtual components. A fronthaul link is set up between the physical and virtual components, which the forum says means data can be sent over packet ethernet connections.

David Orloff, Chair of Small Cell Forum, says: "The benefits to the mobile industry of virtualisation are clear, with a range of major advantages including cost reduction, scalability and the ability to offer a broad range of new services".

Speaking to Mobile Europe, Orloff, an AT&T executive who took over as Chair in August, describes fragmentation as a challenge the industry needs to overcome as it shifts to 5G, especially as small cells look likely to be central to the dense HetNets of the future.

Of course, one could argue AT&T is guilty of causing it in part, as it is just one of countless vendors and operators racing towards 5G ahead of the standards being locked down.

Orloff suggests that is an irrational representation of what operators must do. He says: "As an operator, we are going to trial technology as we build up our expertise. We are not going to tamper with any of that work. We need more experience and real experience at that. As we work through the coming years we need trials and real stuff to show value and direction."

He says the industry has moved considerably from the days when standards were completed, then vendors took over to build out networks in the subsequent years. He says: "Now vendors are really engaged and working in parallel with standards bodies....We have an opportunity to help the industry focus on how 5G will be implemented and deployed."

This logic suggests fragmentation cannot be stopped as telcos will always try and jump into first place. Orloff argues this is where bodies such as the Small Cells Forum come in. He says: "As they are developing new technology, we want to pull everyone together and see what we should be doing before shifting development in the right way."

Before that happens, there's the not inconsiderable matter of the current small cell market. Orloff is, unsurprisingly, bullish about the health of the market, arguing a change in perspective among enterprises has helped the sector.

He says: "Originally hotels would come to us and ask us to bring connectivity into their hotels and then charge us for it. Now it's a case that customers [of the hotels] are demanding coverage and capacity for a conference."

He identifies hospitality and healthcare as two particularly fruitful markets for small cells in the years ahead.

However, Europe, with its particularly thorny and unique site acquisition problems, as well as its comparatively late entry into LTE, remains an issue.

[Read more: Europe's small cell market still suffering from forecasts of jam tomorrow]

Orloff takes the optimistic view, suggesting the big questions surrounding sites, leasing and transport have been answered. He says: "The work is more along the lines of increasing the efficiency of LTE deployments - whether it's cost to deploy, rolling out self-optimised networks, site acquisition or backhaul."

It seems fair to expect the industry will hear more from the Forum as it looks to realise long predicted hopes for the small cell market.