Just Under the Radar: Where is the Base Station Market Headed? Is Our Future Going to be all Boosters and Small Cells?
By Bob Pinato, MPD Editorial Advisor
Many of us in the semiconductor amplifier business designing our products into mobile base stations have enjoyed a very robust 15 years of continuous growth of the number of base stations deployed around the world. A few of us have started with small start ups from more than 15 years back, grown into multi-hundred million dollar and even billion dollar behemoths. Even with the declining prices of semiconductor amplifier content, many firms in the RF industry have managed to grow market share, revenue and profit, while even new entrants in the open foundry segment have secured positions for clients at the lower end of the price and commodity spectrum in the recent three or four years.
In order to enhance coverage of the BTS deployments, it wasn’t all that long ago when repeaters were the rage for CDMA and PHS systems in Korea and Japan. Repeaters were installed everywhere people congregated; shopping malls, auto garages, offices, apartments and even elevators. It became the norm to have access everywhere. Compare this experience to that of us in the USA using the systems provided. “Barely connected” is the expectation in many locations in the USA -- and never, ever, in an elevator. GSM and its more recent derivative, 3G, is everywhere, but just not at the level or speed that makes one satisfied in everyday use. Think of all the times you’ve been dropped or when you could not get a good connection when you are in an open area where connectivity should be strong. The issue comes down to overburdened systems or a backhaul to provide the connectivity to fill in the gaps, where frequency reuse is limited due to distance and provider spectrum. A smart repeater system may have been the ideal gap filler at one point, if the service provider deemed it worth the investment, but the control of frequency reuse made it more risky.
Now flash forward to today. Mobile data is putting even more strain on the faster broadband networks. The idea of a gap filler system, mobile booster or small cell is starting to take hold in the eyes of both the system provider, the FCC and for the ever demanding consumer or high end user willing to pay the extra to get the services. When we talk about these systems, terms such as “femtocell,” “picocell” , booster” or “microcell” may come to mind. Broadly speaking, a femtocell is often used to describe a consumer or business device that sits indoors. A picocell sits in indoor public areas that can be residential or enterprise, a microcell usually resides outside and a signal booster can be placed in mobile environments as well as home, enterprise and even large campus’. However, even the Small Cell Forum points out that a picocell is sometimes used to encompass outdoor cells as well. The term “metrocell” is typically used to describe technologies designed for high capacity metropolitan areas, but backhaul devices are also used in these areas to provide the bandwidth back to the hub.
The system providers such as AT&T, one of the largest suppliers of home/enterprise devices, have been selling such devices to their remote customers who do not have great connectivity, but have the ability to connect one of these devices over the Internet so that the 3G/WCDMA service is provided, uninterrupted, to the customer. In this case the AT&T charges for the “privilege” to use one of their devices in an area where connectivity is limited, not a free service, which it should be to expand their operating network and keep a happy customer. The idea is control of the spectrum and access to the mobile network limited to an existing customer base with registered phones on the system.
This is beginning to change. The tug of war taking place today is how to maintain control of the network and still provide an expanded network for customers to deliver the high-speed mobile content. Boosters are available for sale, and approved by the FCC now with new rulings, which can provide better connectivity in mobile environments (in cars) as well as fixed home, business use. The boosters have advantages in that once they are purchased they have no additional charges by the carriers and more importantly they are carrier agnostic. Femtocells, picocells or the new slang “smart cells” are now taking on a whole new meaning in the world of high-speed broadband mobile networks. These new “mini base stations,” if you will, are quickly becoming the new way to access content and not have frequency reuse issues. With the costs of the small cell/mini BTS coming into an affordable range of less than $10,000 USD for a microcell, to less than $500 for a femtocell. While signal boosters, of the type from Wilson Electronics provides, for cars can range less than $200 and for home and business’ in the $200-$500 range.
Where are we going with this, you ask? This is an opportunity for us to have a dialogue about the new way of thinking about how our semiconductors, type, efficiency, technology, power output and yes, even the bandwidth capability, will be used in the future. Small cells of ALL types are the next revolution in driving the demand. From the explosion in the use of bandwidth, which is coming at us like a tidal wave we cannot yet easily see, to the need for efficiency and output power requirements.
Smart phones have become more than 50 percent of all the phone sales in recent years, and projected to be 80 percent of all phone sales in 2015 in the USA alone. The demand on mobile content will drive the access points, backhauls and various locations, where small cells can maximize the usage of a network, to be placed more strategically located, as well as the need to have some smarts. In our future, they will not always be authorized nor installed by the service provider, but by businesses and consumers alike. The control factor will move away from the service providers to the users when the volume starts to drive this market. This is already happening with mobile boosters and the agreements reached by the FCC in a published order in February 2013 stipulating guidelines for usage of boosters and the expectations of cooperation between carriers, the user and the manufacturer. Wilson Electronics is one of the firms which played an instrumental role in facilitating this new regulation.
A wide range of analyst firms has predicted strong growth numbers for small cell strategies. ICCS LLC, among others, forecasts the global small cell market to grow to between 2.5 to 3.2 million small cells (of all types) shipped by 2016, driving a market worth about $2.5 billion USD. It is becoming more clear that the traditional base station, while still being deployed in large volumes, will be overtaken in 2016 by the rising number of small cells, which will comprise over 80 percent of all base stations delivered globally. New requirements in the use of baseband controls and the amplifier output levels will mandate the use of higher frequency, broadband amplifiers with much lower power outputs than those used in the traditional base stations. Boosters with gain control and oscillation prevention circuits will only prove to enhance the experience of using small cells and boosters so as to not overload the base station systems.
It will become a revolution for the Multi-Market component providers, who have built their businesses on the Mobile BTS, WIFI and CATV markets, looking for the next volume market opportunity. With lower output power requirements, this will become a volume boon for the suppliers of gain blocks and medium power amplifiers. The changes will be noticed for those who have advantages in the 5 to 50 watt power ranges, especially with more efficient broadband technologies. Prices will be competitive and technologies such as GaAs HBT, GaAs pHEMT and GaN/Si or GaN/SiC will all have their competitive niche to fight over and see if they can win slots from the traditionally used and low priced Si LDMOS.
In this writer’s opinion, this is a great opportunity for the newer technologies to take over in the design of the new small cell architectures, enhance power efficiencies and leverage the capabilities across all the spectrum of performance demands with the volumes to accelerate this new area of growth. It is apparent that GaN technology has one of the best chances to meet all of the future performance demands of the 4G small cells. The efficiency -- think green, wide bandwidth, versatility of device types -- and the fact that GaN can deliver both moderate and high power levels across and cover all the frequency bands is a major advantage for the technology. Key also is the fact that most GaN suppliers also have a robust and proven line of amplifiers which can leverage the GaN as an output stage. In base stations, use of GaN of any flavor (Si, SiC) has a hard time convincing engineers that it is the ideal replacement for Si LDMOS, except for small volume wide bandwidth systems, due to the latter’s long reliable history and low cost reputation. GaN, whether GaN on Si, which potentially is an ideal technology with a very low cost potential for the 5 to 50W amplifiers at the higher operating frequencies of 2.1 or 2.6 GHz, or GaN on SiC for the more demanding thermal environments and higher efficiencies. The sheer number of products being released for this market alone is proving the viability of the technology and its ability to hit the key price points as the volume of the small cell markets heats up. It may actually be the one to beat out Si LDMOS in the power amplifier slot for these small, efficient and high volume products, mostly due to its key desired characteristics, higher frequency capability and a low enough price to justify the design.
New technologies may take time to find a market, but they do act as a tool to help drive us to new product developments over time. Sometimes it is a market looking for a solution, which is an ideal situation to be in, and sometimes it is a solution or technology looking for a market.
This time GaN can actually be defined as a solution that is enabling a wide range of markets, from CATV line amplifiers (great flat broadband) for which GaN/Si may have pricing advantages, to small cells, due to the power and efficiency characteristics, to even microwave frequencies in RADAR systems and beyond.
We are looking at the next great technology and product market leverage not seen in RF since the days of GaAs HBT, just only 20 years ago.
ICCS Global LLC. is a multinational consulting firm with offices in the USA, China, Hong Kong and associates in Korea, India, Singapore and SE Asia.
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