The need for small cells – those miniature cellular access points traditionally known as femtocells – typically arises because of coverage or capacity issues within a building. Small cells are a relatively new concept that works on an operator’s licensed frequency to extend the wireless network inside a building. These cells can be installed in a number of ways to accommodate different needs.
It's critical for the IT department to make sure that employees have the necessary coverage and service levels on their mobile devices so they can be as productive as possible to help the company succeed. That means eliminating soft spots in coverage and overcoming any congestion due to large numbers of users. It is essentially a reliability of service issue.
What about WiFi?
One of the questions that arises when we talk to IT professionals is "why not just do this with WiFi?" The answer is that sometimes WiFi is appropriate, and these small cells can work right alongside WiFi as needed to support data. But a voice call needs to go over the cellular network, and that is where small cells become the best solution in a problematic coverage area. In addition, security and reliability are a high priority at enterprises, and small cells operate on licensed frequencies so they are a great deal more secure and reliable compared to a WiFi solution.
Repeaters and DAS?
Repeaters and distributed antenna systems can be complementary systems to small cells as well, although some people regard them as either-or choices. Both of these options have their strengths in terms of solving the coverage problem, but one area where small cells excel is the ability to provide actual additional cellular capacity. Neither repeaters nor DAS can deliver the dedicated call processing capacity of the small cells. And capacity is an issue, especially if the company's users are relying on data-hungry tablets.
We have even seen cases where there is already a DAS in place, but the company turned to a small cell to drive the DAS and add capacity. That solved the problem of slow response on tablets and dropped voice calls that were occurring because the DAS was merely channeling the capacity of the carrier's cellular tower.
More About Small Cells
These enterprise-level small cells can be used in any type of building where coverage problems arise, anything from a single-story industrial complex to a multi-story building to a warehouse complex covering tens of acres. The generally accepted coverage area for Sprint's AIRAVE Pro Connect small cell is 85,000 square feet, but multiple cells can be clustered to provide flawless coverage for huge areas or multiple floors.
When clustered, these small cells operate together as a single unit, talking to each other via the corporate network to guarantee smooth handoffs as a user moves throughout the office or warehouse space. When a company deploys small cells, Sprint can perform a quick site analysis to determine the coverage challenges and optimal locations for the cells.
The AIRAVE Pro Connect handles up to 32 data and 29 voice users simultaneously, making it suitable for a broad range of sites and building configurations. The AIRAVE Pro Connect offers feature transparency with the Sprint network and supports 911 emergency calls.
-Chris Osborn is Chief Technology Officer at AirWalk Communications. Sprint added the AirWalk Enterprise Femtocell to its in-building solutions portfolio in November 2011.