A New Infrastructure For The IoE

A primer on how and why small cells will factor in big for the connected world.


The IoE is going to change, radically, a number of paradigms. Top among them is exactly how we are going to route the yottabytes of data that will flow between objects of the IoE, which is made more difficult because 70% of that data will not be on the traditional wireless or wired pipeline.

To date, lots of attention has been paid to bringing intelligent objects on line to connect everything to everything else. However, little attention has been paid to deploying a ubiquitous umbrella of interconnect technology. If the IoE is truly going to interconnect everything, there is no margin for data “black holes” such as exist within today’s cellular infrastructure. If the IoE is going to function in real time, then the interconnect must be pervasive.

The traditional wireless macro infrastructure, even with emerging technologies such as long-term evolution/advanced) LTE/LTE-A, and other bandwidth optimization technologies, does not have the deployments or the spectrum to handle the emergence of data as the new primary traffic.

The solution
Enter the small cell. Small cells are not new. The best known is the femtocell that has been in your home, as your private wireless network, for some time now. But this technology is about to go big time. Small cell technology is on the verge of becoming the wireless “grout” that will do what macro cells, and other mobile networks can’t — filling in the voids in the wireless infrastructure, and handle the impending data tsunami. The small cell infrastructure will be the single most enabling platform to bring the IoE on line.

Small cell flyover
Small cells, originally, were defined as small cellular base stations. That definition has evolved over time with the emergence of Wi-Fi networks, and the term now encompasses a somewhat broader scope than just cellular. Essentially, all small cells serve the same purpose. As one goes up the food chain, each platform has enhanced capabilities, broader coverage, and more functionality.

For a time, small cells were, exclusively, deployed by mobile network operators (MNOs) to fill in RF voids, as best as possible, where placing macrocells was not practical or cost-effective. Now, small cells have moved to the consumer and commercial arena and, with the ubiquitous proliferation of Wi-Fi, they are used for a multitude of scenarios.

There is a lot of information that can be part of a small cell discussion, but space limits what is practical to include here, so this article will keep the discussion to a high level and address the main features and issues of small cells and their integration into the IoE. Further articles on small cell technology are forthcoming.

Small cells come in four basic models, femto, pico, micro and metro. Today, they can be licensed, or unlicensed. Essentially, the definition of each type of small cell is related to its coverage area, power output, and application. Following is a short description. Figure 1 is a generic graphic of the small cell tree. Keep in mind that each of these categories has a number of variables that can reconfigure within the scope of the equipment to fine tune its applicability.

Figure 1. The small cell tree. Courtesy Query Home

Figure 1. The small cell tree. Courtesy Query Home

Femtocells are largely residential, used indoors, and are most commonly used as for home Wi-Fi networks. They are the lowest power variety – 100 mW or less, cover an area up to 50 meters and support fewer than 10 users. These are the cells that manage most of the home IoE environments. Residential femtocells are consumer-controlled. All of the interconnect, installation, and setup can be done by the consumer.

Of late, there has emerged the enterprise femtocell. It is a hopped-up version of the residential femtocell where more than residential is required, but the network is generally self-managed (vs. MNO managed, although MNOs can manage them, as well). It offers variable bandwidth options, higher data rates, can handle more users, and can be both licensed and unlicensed.

Picocells are slightly higher in power – up to 250 mW, can support up to about 100 users, and have a range of around 200 m. Picocells are usually network operator managed and are usually deployed in larger venues – stadiums, malls, college and business campuses, airports, etc.

Micro and metrocells
These types of small cells are really more of a mini-macro cell and mostly used to add capacity to an already existing macro site. They operate in licensed spectrum and typically are used to cover an outdoor urban area such as mall or city center, a large underground parking garage, multiple buildings or college campuses, etc. They also can be deployed in rural areas. Power can be up to 10 W, and they can support hundreds of users.

All small cells are backhauled to the global wireless infrastructure. Backhaul technologies include Ethernet, microwave, and copper. Satellite links can be used but is not common, primarily because of cost and signal propagation delays.

It is this small-cell infrastructure that will enable the IoE and the yottabytes of data that will be flowing around in it. There will be a new menu of enabling technologies. These small cells will be the most critical hardware platform of the IoE.

Future wireless networking technologies
To support these small cells, and the integration of all wireless technologies, IoE will require a new paradigm in network management. We will see future communications networks morph into what will be next-generation heterogeneous networks (HetNets). These also will be intelligent, self-organizing networks (SONs) that will function in real-time and be frequency agile – responding to loading and traffic demands on the fly. They will include virtualization technologies, such as software-defined networks (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV), and will lay out the infrastructure that the IoE will ride upon.

For the semiconductor industry, this will offer a plethora of opportunity. The semi industry has the opportunity to develop and supply a diverse set of hardware for the upcoming build-out of the small cell infrastructure, from the ground up, including security at the metal layer. And, small cell hardware will include peripheral technology such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC, ZigBee, IPv6 support, 6LoWPAN, Z-Wave, ANT+, next-generation Ethernet, and much more.

Single-nanometer gate technologies are on the horizon. Fledgling technologies such as energy harvesting, Bluetooth Smart, RF modulation schemes, and other low-energy platforms, can be integrated on small form factors that will allow small cell to be put just about anywhere, unobtrusively.

These are visions of the future. None of this exists yet, at least not in other than in the prototype stage or some in field trials. But the technology is sound and it will happen – as will the IoE.

The components
Drilling down a bit, let’s take a look at some of these next-generation wireless platforms. With the plethora of technologies that are going to be part of the IoE, integrating small cells to fill in the gaps will require a monumental cooperative effort from a number of segments; device manufacturers, wireless infrastructure providers, hardware and software vendors and countless others. With up to 200 billion intelligent things interconnected, doing things over again is not an option so there is a lot on the line.

There is an initial case that much of the IoE objects will need 24/7/365 real-time connectivity. This includes things such as vehicle-to-infrastructure/vehicle (V2I/V), health-monitoring wearables, and some elements of security (police), defense, etc. The power and telecom and satellite infrastructures will need to be on the IoE full-time, as well. This always-online case is the primary driver to ensure that all locales are covered, and this is why the next-generation technologies discussed earlier will be a must. Without them, the IoE will just be a slightly more sophisticated M2M environment.

HetNets – the great enabler
On the horizon is what are called HetNets. These next-generation networks will be the layer that brings the wireless infrastructure under a single network umbrella. HetNets will interconnect the small cell infrastructure, the macro infrastructure, as well as unlicensed technologies such as Wi-Fi, so the IoE can enjoy perpetual, unrestricted internetworking. Figure 2 is an example of a HetNet, and how it connects to the global wireless infrastructure.

Figure 2. An example of a HetNet. Credit; David Johnson, Karel Matthee, Dare Sokoya, Lawrence Mboweni, Ajay Makan, and Henk Kotze (Wireless Africa, Meraka Institute, South Africa) - Building a Rural Wireless Mesh Network: A do-it-yourself guide to planning and building a Freifunk based mesh network.

Figure 2. An example of a HetNet. Credit; David Johnson, Karel Matthee, Dare Sokoya, Lawrence Mboweni, Ajay Makan, and Henk Kotze (Wireless Africa, Meraka Institute, South Africa) – Building a Rural Wireless Mesh Network: A do-it-yourself guide to planning and building a Freifunk based mesh network.

As can be seen from the graphic, there are multiple types of access nodes. Wide-area HetNets will contain all the elements of a wireless network, across all deployment scenarios (indoor/outdoor environments, office buildings, homes, and underground areas). They support the multifaceted interoperability among macrocells, small cell, Wi-Fi network elements (hotspots, carrier Wi-Fi), in a mosaic of coverage that offers handoff capability among the network elements.

HetNets will integrate a number of new technology platforms, different from what is currently on the table. They will support much of what the IoE will require. They will include:

Intelligent SONs – Intelligent self-organizing networks will be the heart of the HetNet. These networks have the ability to analyze, in real time, the operating conditions of the surrounding radio environments, and autonomously plan and reconfigure the various radio parameters such as frequency, scrambling codes, and transmitter power levels, for example.

A SON will be capable of sensing changes in the radio environment as well, so when new nodes are introduced, or removed, the SON can automatically respond to these changes by adjusting the rest of the access points (APs) and nodes operating conditions for optimal QoS.

HetNets are a complex network that integrates a number of next-generation technologies such as SDN and NFV, which are discussed next.

NFV and SDN – Virtualization technologies are the next platform for radio networks. The short description of SDN is that, basically it decouples the control from the hardware and brings the control to a virtualized data center. That means the typical inflexible and hardwired networks, with no dynamic resource allocation capability, can now be remotely and dynamically reconfigured to allocate their resources and optimize the network.

Figure 3. Traditional vs. virtualized networks. Courtesy, Commscope.

Figure 3. Traditional vs. virtualized networks. Courtesy, Commscope.

SDNs are designed as an architecture that abstracts the hardware infrastructure, and virtualizes it as a cybernetic entity. Figure 3 is a graphic that shows rational network and its virtualized cousin.

SDN networks are programmable platforms, capable of achieving efficient resource utilization. Another benefit is they can be scaled, dynamically, to support the demands of the skyrocketing mobile data wheelhouse. The nice thing about his is that the virtualized entity can be located just about anywhere, adding a level of freedom and cost effectiveness.

NFV can be looked at as a parallel technology to SDN. It is an initiative of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) Industry Specification Group. Essentially it is the framework that defines how to virtualize network functions previously performed by proprietary dedicated hardware. This is expected to reduce the cost of network devices such as firewalls and security appliances, routers and switches using a common, commodity platform that hosts these environments. Benefits of NFV include:

• Greater scalability, both upwards and downwards, and to evolve services.
• New opportunities, at lower risk, for trials and to deploy new and innovative services.
• Enablement of the virtual appliance market and software entrants.
• Reduced time-to-market for the deployment of new network services.
• Reduced operator CapEx and OpEx via reduced equipment.
• Additional ROI from new services.

NFV is a highly complementary to Software Defined Networking (SDN). These topics are mutually beneficial but not interdependent or mutually exclusive. Network Functions can be virtualized and deployed independent of an SDN being deployed, and vice-versa. However, the two platforms are highly complementary and implementing both more than just doubles the benefits of each independently.

The world is readying itself for the onslaught of massive amounts of data that will have to be effectively managed, or data Armageddon will occur. The most pressing challenge is how to route this data, and convert a legacy infrastructure into a dynamic and agile platform in a brave new virtualized world.

There is a lot of activity across a number of industries, but it all depends upon a cohesive and globally interconnected wireless infrastructure. Small cells, along with technologies such as SONs, SDNs, NFV, and the advancements in the hardware, software segments that will integrate them, will provide the next-generation infrastructure required to make the IoE all that it can be.


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