While mobile data usage nearly doubles each year, mobile operators cannot increase expenditures at that rate. But simltaneously, time, data rates (a key metric of perceived quality) are affected by the proximity of a device to a cell.
These two realities make the use of small cells necessary creating a battleground as multiple chip architectures are in pursuit of the small cell market. And for vendors of system-on-a-chip (SoC), the battle is worth waging. NPD In-Stat research forecasts that there will be 160.3 million active small cells, and the retail value of small cell shipments will reach $14 billion by 2015.
“Small cells cover areas where macrocells would be overkill and are essential to the success of heterogeneous networking (HetNet), the term used to describe modern cellular infrastructure architecture.
HetNet is the practice of integrating small cells, distributed antenna systems (DAS), and Wi-Fi with existing cellular infrastructure to create the best environment for signaling integrity, optimal uplink and downlink capacities, and low latencies,” said Chris Kissel, Senior Analyst.
Small cells include femtocells that serve as few as 4 users and have an effective range of 15-50 meters (typically used in residences and small enterprises); picocells, used to provide coverage indoors and outdoors for up to 100 users; and microcells, used to support as many as 1,000 users and have an effective range of 2-3 kilometers.
Currently, there are five approaches being used to power small cells, built around different SoC platforms:
• MIPS cores are being used in residential femtocells, like those made by Broadcom and Cavium.
• SoC vendors are adapting existing mobile processors to meet the needs of femtocells. Qualcomm’s Femtocell Station Modem (FSM) is based on its Snapdragon platform, while Intel, in partnership with Ubiquisys, is developing Edge Cloud local cache processing using Atom cores.
• ARM processors are also being used by several SoC providers: DesignArt, Mindspeed, Picochip (acquired by Mindspeed), and Texas Instruments are using ARM processors in combination with DSPs in their chipset designs.
• x86 processors have had limited use in microcells and could become important in picocells. As HSPA and LTE platforms evolve into LTE-Advanced, greater computational power will be needed to process packets and signals over larger spectrum channels, which could be an opening for this architecture.
• IBM’s Power Architecture is an emerging platform in the small cell market; Freescale has been the most vocal proponent.
It will not be the SoC vendors that finally decide who wins in the small cell silicon market. Mobile operators and MSOs will select products based on price, performance, and compatibility. The real wizardry will come from SoC suppliers trying to convince device manufacturers that their platforms are best.