Seen as a coverage complement to macro sites and larger antennas, small cells have so far not lived up to their potential, with limited and specific adoption. But that scenario is set to change with the arrival of 5G networks.
That’s the view of most of the region’s main industry players, such as mobile operators and equipment suppliers, who spoke with BNamericas.
Their shared understanding is that these compact, often eco-friendly and visually pleasing cellular antennas will gain new momentum with the need for coverage densification that is expected to be intensified by the new technology.
While some of the operators already use small cells to boost indoor and/or outdoor coverage, the majority of projects involve more widespread adoption in the near term, due to 5G, to avoid congestion and enhance the signal.
Rafael Buigas, Liberty Latin America’s VP of mobile and access networks, says the group’s small cell network is limited and focused mainly on the B2B segment, with the deployment of small cells in customer offices, but that more rollouts are planned for the coming years.
“To keep up with growing traffic demand, we have been densifying our networks, mainly in denser areas. We’re moving towards a centralized RAN [C-RAN] architecture for our new sites as we move into virtualization in the coming years,” Buigas told BNamericas.
Ericsson is Liberty’s leading supplier for both small cells and C-RAN equipment.
The carrier deployed small cells in Panama and Barbados as well as over 50 C-RAN sites in Puerto Rico, according to Buigas. For 2022, it is planning deployment in Jamaica and, in the coming years, across its other markets in the region, the executive said.
Buigas sees the mid-band spectrum, namely the 1.7GHz-4GHz range, as the prime one for coverage densification with small cells.
“Even though 5G allows more data to be carried over the same radio spectrum, certain sites will ultimately congest. Once a site reaches its maximum capacity, ‘splitting’ the site into multiple sites, or densifying the area, is required to add the required capacity. The result is a greater number of sites, each with a smaller radiofrequency footprint or smaller cells,” he said.
Mexican behemoth América Móvil said it employs small cells depending on each type of coverage demand and locality.
In Brazil, its subsidiary Claro does not reveal the amount of small cells it has in its network, only that it is “representative” and “will be significantly expanded with the arrival of 5G,” a spokesperson told BNamericas.
5G will bring the opportunity to increase the use and application of small cells in the 3.5GHz band and the 26GHz millimeter wave band acquired in the 5G auction, says the operator.
Brazilian regulator Anatel allowed operators to "count" small cells as macro cells to meet coverage targets established in the tender.
Currently, Claro employs small cells mainly outdoors, in hotspots where there is a concentration of people with high network usage, such as sporting arenas, concerts, and events like New Year's Eve and carnival. It also has it for specific use cases such as IoT and industry 4.0 applications.
Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei are the telco’s main small cell suppliers. The Brazilian telco also admits to having new strategic partners, with a specific focus on small cell solutions, “whose names will be announced in due course.”
In Argentina, the main small cell suppliers for market leader Telecom Argentina are Nokia and Huawei. In response to BNamericas, the telco said it prioritizes adoption of small cells in high network traffic hotspots, namely downtown areas, soccer stadiums and summer resorts.
"Without a doubt" in the near future, with 5G, the demand for small cells will grow, the operator said, although the rate of adoption will depend on each market’s conditions.
"Macrocells contribute to providing outdoor coverage, while the rest of the solutions [small cells, for example] will be meant for specific needs oriented to the end customer or to certain network objectives," a spokesperson said about the use of small cells in 5G.
The company claims to have been the first carrier to turn on 5G in Argentina, with 20 sites (antennas) now operating in Buenos Aires, Rosario and on the Atlantic coast.
This network, however, still does not rely on the main bands for 5G assigned by the regulator. Telecom Argentina is waiting for a local regulatory definition on spectrum assignments, the official said. Regulator Enacom has already identified the bands suitable for 5G, such as 3GPP-standardized 3.5GHz and millimeter wave bands.
Chile’s market leader Entel, which also operates in Peru, did not disclose its suppliers or its strategy for small cells. However, the telco said use of the equipment is not “exclusive to the development of 5G.”
"We currently have the largest 4G customer base in the country, with 7.2mn users and, to provide the best service, permanent deployments and investments are required," the company said in a statement.
Marco Di Constanzo, network engineering director at TIM Brasil, told BNamericas that the telco has more than 1,000 small cells installed in its Brazilian network. The equipment is delivered by its three main providers of radio access solutions: Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia.
According to Di Constanzo, mini ERBs and smaller solutions such as small cells will be more important in the medium term for the densification of 5G, as this equipment tends to meet both technical and environmental requirements.
The group invests in small cell solutions mainly for indoor use, to improve or increase network capacity in specific locations.
TIM has also been one of the main proponents of the so-called biosites, eco-friendly solutions integrated with light poles or security cameras, as well as off-grid, solar-powered sites in partnership with American Tower.
Telefónica and Millicom did not detail their small cells strategy.
This month, Telefónica deployed its first open RAN 5G small cells in its Germany subsidiary.
In 2017, Telefônica Brasil signed a contract for the installation of 6,900 small sites, for 3G and 4G densification, in urban infrastructure such as temperature clocks and bus stops.
At that time, the company said it had 150 small cell points in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
With slightly different market approaches, the main radio and network suppliers are also upbeat about the growth of small cells with 5G.
“Ericsson has been supplying small cells since the previous generations – 2G, 3G and 4G – but the volume has not been representative. We still have a much larger volume of macro cells than small cells,” Paulo Bernardocki, Ericsson’s head of networks and technology in Latin America, told BNamericas
“There is a great expectation that, with 5G, this scenario changes. We will certainly see an increase in the volume of small cell deployments,” he said.
Such a change is directly linked to the technical aspects of the bands and the construction of the network structure for 5G, said Bernardocki, notably due to the higher frequencies of 2.3GHz, 3.5GHz and millimeter wave bands (above 24GHz) that 5G uses.
The boom of small cells for 5G, however, will not come immediately, as most operators in Latin America still have macro coverage expansion projects and obligations, focused on regions, as part of the initial 5G roll-outs, he said. The executive foresees an increase in small cell adoption in 2-3 years.
According to Bernardocki, macrocells and large outdoor towers, especially in mid-sized and big cities, are now very widespread and the next step is to improve gaps with small cells and street level sites.
He also sees potential for using small cells indoors and in private networks. Ericsson already participates in these projects in different countries in the region, in the manufacturing, agriculture and mining sectors.
Most of the company’s small cells sold in Latin America are manufactured in São José dos Campos, Brazil, Ericsson's only plant in the region. Bernardocki could not specify how many small cells Ericsson produces and sells, but said the company supplies the main operators in the region.
Wilson Cardoso, Nokia's CTO for Latin America, told BNamericas that a "considerable" increase in demand for small cells with 5G will be driven by three main factors.
The first is the replacement of passive antenna systems, also known as DAS (distributed antenna systems) by small cells, which was done in Peru together with ATP Towers, to deal with the new cabling and signal irradiation demands.
The second driver will be the street level sites, incorporated for example inside public lighting, which he said are capable of multiplying users' connection capacity by 100 times.
And finally, the introduction of millimeter frequencies (such as 26GHz), which will require many more, especially low powered, cells.
“We have two big elements in the portfolio today: the small cells and the femtocells [a type of small cells]. Small cells have higher power and connect a greater number of objects than femtocells. Small cells are being used both outdoor and indoor and femtocells indoor only," Cardoso said.
Nokia has more than 300 customers worldwide using its small cell equipment on 4G and/or 5G and, in the case of femtocells, more than 38 customers, according to Cardoso. A breakdown by region was not provided.
However, Cardoso said Nokia started providing small cells for 5G regionally in 2019 with Antel in Uruguay, considered the first 5G network in operation in Latin America.
In 4G, one of the most important small cell projects in operation, according to Nokia's CTO, is the Mall Costanera Center in Santiago, Chile, where Telefónica Movistar provides indoor coverage on all floors of the 300m-high building.
Silmar Palmeira, senior products director for Qualcomm in Latin America, told BNamericas that the company has six partners with small cell solutions powered by its chipsets, mostly from Asia, and that some of them are working to bring these 5G-ready solutions to Latin America.
Qualcomm is a leading provider of chipsets powering 5G networks, including small cells.
These partners are non-traditional radio suppliers operating on the open RAN concept, like Japan’s NEC.
“I'm talking to two of them and the goal is that, halfway through this year, we do tests together and bring them to the region,” said Palmeira, without naming the potential partners.
He sees demand for the equipment inevitably growing with 5G, notably because of higher frequencies used and for industrial applications.
According to Palmeira, use cases that require low latency, with indoor and outdoor solutions, in addition to the development of fixed-wireless access (FWA), should be the main drivers of small cells in the region.
The company is also working on regional projects for private networks and installation of access networks on light poles, he said.
Marcos Takanohashi, LatAm senior VP sales of CommScope, told BNamericas that the company is mostly betting on indoor solutions in the region with its Onecell 4G/5G portfolio. CommScope is a major provider of equipment aimed at wireless systems, including base station antennas, radio frequency transmission systems and fiber to poles.
The chief opportunities are seen in industry 4.0, as well as for coverage in hotels, hospitals and corporate buildings.
“We’re doing some tests with industry 4.0 with a major regional carrier,” Takanohashi said.
“For us, the focus is less on the technology and more on the application itself,” said the executive, highlighting the potential of small cells using unlicensed (Wi-Fi, with Ruckus equipment) and licensed spectrum.
For outdoor small cells, CommScope provides antenna equipment to leading suppliers Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia.