Gartner: Market Guide for Small Cells- 5G, virtualization, disaggregation and Open RAN


Small cells are increasingly used to boost network densification and expand coverage for both private and public networks. They will be increasingly important in the deployment of 5G mmWave networks because of the very short propagation distances which require many small cells for adequate coverage in a given geographical area.

5G small cell market is gaining momentum due to the higher bands like mmWave limitation, in-depth in-building coverage requirement and strategic area densification. However, despite the hype surrounding 5G, 3G/4G deployments are expected to remain the dominant technology in terms of volume shipments until 2022 when 5G small cell deployment will overtake 3G/4G. Therefore, because small cell densification is moving forward, integrated small cell platforms supporting both 5G and 4G radio are essential for the next five years.

Small cells deployed in strategic areas have also accelerated the new virtualized and disaggregated architecture adoption, aiming for greater cost-efficiency and flexibility. Together with edge computing, they are enablers for enterprise digital services such as manufacturing applications, smart harbor/terminal, local contextual applications and IoT services.

Definition of Small Cells:

Small cells are radio access nodes with low radio frequency power output. They are operating in licensed and unlicensed spectrums, with a cell radius of a few tens to a couple of hundred meters. They can be deployed in a variety of places including in-building, lampposts, street furniture, walls and rooftops.
Small cells can be 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G or carrier-grade Wi-Fi access points, and they increasingly support several of these technologies in the same access points. Small cells may use frequencies licensed by the CSP, but they may also use unlicensed or shared frequency bands. Examples of such products are those supporting Long Term Evolution Advanced (LTE-A) LTE-A over unlicensed spectrum (LTE-U), Long Term Evolution Licensed-Assisted Access (LTE-LAA), Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) and MulteFire.
Small cells complement the macro network to improve coverage, add targeted capacity, and support new services and user experiences. There are various types of small cells, with varying ranges, power levels and form factors according to use case.
Traditionally, small cell infrastructure is managed by a CSP or on a CSP’s behalf by a partner, and used for public access. However, our definition includes small cells for private networking.  We include the following form factors in our traditional small cell definition:
  • Femtocells
  • Picocells
  • Carrier-grade Wi-Fi
The femtocells and carrier-grade Wi-Fi are not the focus of this Market Guide. For detailed definitions, please refer to “Market Definitions and Methodology: Communications Service Provider Operational Technology.”

Gartner’s Key Findings:

  • The small cell solution is shifting from delivering in-build coverage to enable large-scale network densification. Increasing 5G and private network deployments further accelerate the trend.
  • In the small cell market, variety and diversity are replacing uniformity. Introduction of new spectrums, types of cells and architectures, vertical industries use cases, and business models like neutral host act as accelerators in this respect.
  • In addition, diversity increases the cost and complexity of small cell deployment and management, not just access points but also potentially edge computing, localized core and distributed radio units.
  • Traditional proprietary small cell systems are challenged by disaggregated, virtualized architecture. Communications service providers (CSPs) are looking for a more flexible, multivendor, cost-effective solution through breaking apart basebands and radio heads, and virtualizing some or all of the baseband functions in software.

Gartner’s Recommendations for Small Cell Deployment:

  • Build your small cell deployment strategy beyond coverage through prioritized investment in network densification and related digital services. Include 5G small cell and private networking requirements in your product plans.
  • Address diversity challenges through a multivendor approach. There is no one size fits all in the future small cell market, and a scenario-oriented product evaluations process needs to be implemented.
  • Reduce complexity and improve cost-efficiency through prioritizing the deployment feasibility as well as operation intelligence and automation.
  • Work closely with emerging suppliers and establish an objective and structured process to thoroughly evaluate and develop quick prototypes using disaggregated and virtualized architectures.

Small Cells Will Be at the Forefront of Virtualization and Open RAN:

The economic success of 5G is reliant on interoperable multi-vendor networks, which require open interfaces at both the silicon and network levels. Therefore, many CSPs are continually exploring the possibility of moving away from the proprietary hardware to more modern open and interoperable systems.

To support these, CSPs will need to adopt new network topologies such as cloud-RAN, virtualized RAN (vRAN) or open RAN (ORAN), together with integrated edge compute.The key to the open network lies in disaggregation — separating the key elements such as centralized units (CUs) and distributed units (DUs) — and the open reconfiguration — combining components from any suppliers because they are all interconnected in the same way.

For 5G, those central processes will usually be virtualized (run as software on off-the-shelf servers).The move to open network has been more advanced in small cell layer than macro network, and several suppliers already offer architectures in which a number of small cells are clustered around a centralized, virtualized controller. But there are two potential barriers to achieving a real multivendor environment: the need to be in agreement on where the network should be split between the central and the local elements and the need to be a single common interface between the elements in each preferred split.

Split RAN/SC architectures have multiple options, as identified by 3GPP. Of these, 3GPP has focused on Option-2 (RLC-PDCP), ORAN on Option-7.2 (PHY-PHY) and Small Cell Forum (SCF) on Option-6 (PHY-MAC). SCF will develop a 5G version of its networked FAPI spec, which will enable a split MAC and PHY in a disaggregated small cell network, supporting the 3GPP Option-6 split over Ethernet fronthaul and targeting, in particular, cost-effective indoor scenarios. SCF’s work on open interfaces such as nFAPI will play an important role in the market, alongside the work of partners such as O-RAN Alliance and Telecom Infra Project.

Many CSPs expect to take their first steps in their small cell layer, providing valuable experience of how to manage and orchestrate a network in which multiple radio units share common baseband functions, some of them deployed on cloud infrastructure. While there are still challenges in this domain, the disaggregation and virtualized architecture reduce the technology barrier to market and introduce new players into the market including software players as well as OEMs and ODMs.


Small Cell Hardware and Software Vendors:

The table below may be used as a quick reference guide to representative vendors and their 5G small cell solutions. It includes the major vendors who have a long history providing small cell, DAS solutions and also some new emerging vendors who are providing software-based small cell solutions.

Table of Small Cell Vendors:

Small Cell Software
Virtualized RAN Software
M-RAN Virtual Small Cell
5G Open Platform Small Cell
Enterprise Radio Access Network (E-RAN)
Radio Dot System, Micro Radio, Lightpole Site
LampSite Family, BookRRU, Easy Macro
 Viper Platform
Massive MIMO AAS Radio Unit
Flexi Zone, AirScale Indoor Radio system (ASiR), AirScale Micro Remote Radio Head (mRRH), AirScale mmWave Radio (ASMR), Smart Node Femtocells
Samsung 5G Small Cell
Qcell, 5G iMicro, 5G Pad RRU

2 thoughts on “Gartner: Market Guide for Small Cells- 5G, virtualization, disaggregation and Open RAN

  1. Gartner Says Worldwide 5G Network Infrastructure Spending to Almost Double in 2020: Investments in 5G Network Infrastructure to Reach 21.3% of Total Wireless Infrastructure

    Total wireless infrastructure revenue is expected to decline 4.4% to $38.1 billion in 2020. Investment by communications service providers (CSPs) in 5G network infrastructure accounted for 10.4% of total wireless infrastructure revenue in 2019. This figure will reach 21.3% in 2020 (see Table 1).

    “Investment in wireless infrastructure continues to gain momentum, as a growing number of CSPs are prioritizing 5G projects by reusing current assets including radio spectrum bandwidths, base stations, core network and transport network, and transitioning LTE/4G spend to maintenance mode,” said Kosei Takiishi, senior research director at Gartner. “Early 5G adopters are driving greater competition among CSPs. In addition, governments and regulators are fostering mobile network development and betting that it will be a catalyst and multiplier for widespread economic growth across many industries.”

    Rising competition among CSPs is causing the pace of 5G adoption to accelerate. New O-RAN (open radio access network) and vRAN (virtualized RAN) ecosystem could disrupt current vendor-lock-in and promote 5G adoption by providing cost-efficient and agile 5G products in the future. Gartner predicts that CSPs in Greater China (China, Taiwan and Hong Kong), mature Asia/Pacific, North America and Japan will reach 5G coverage across 95% of national populations by 2023.

    “Despite investment growth rates in 5G being slightly lower in 2020 due to the COVID-19 crisis (excluding Greater China and Japan), CSPs in all regions are quickly pivoting new and discretionary spend to build out the 5G network and 5G as a platform,” said Mr. Takiishi.

    Over the short-term, Greater China leads the world in 5G development, with 49.4% of worldwide investment in 2020 attributed to the region. Cost effective infrastructure manufactured in China coupled with state sponsorship and reduced regulatory barriers is paving the way for major CSPs in China to quickly build 5G coverage. “However, other early adopting and technologically adept nations are not far behind,” said Mr. Takiishi.

    Gartner expects that 5G investment will rebound modestly in 2021 as CSPs seek to capitalize on changed behaviors sparked by populations’ elevated reliance on communication networks. 5G investment will exceed LTE/4G in 2022.

    CSPs will gradually add stand-alone (SA) capabilities to their non-stand-alone (NSA) 5G networks, and Gartner predicts by 2023, 15% of CSPs worldwide will operate stand-alone 5G networks that do not rely on 4G network infrastructure. This will rapidly divert wireless investment away from LTE/4G and spending on legacy RAN infrastructure will rapidly decline.

    Gartner clients can learn more in the reports “Forecast: Communications Service Provider Operational Technology, 2Q20 Update” and “Forecast Analysis: Communications Service Provider Operational Technology, Worldwide.”

  2. Why do people still get tech news and analysis from newspapers when there are websites like IEEE Techblog that provide much more accurate information and technology assessment?

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