To keep Canadians connected, carriers are going ‘small’

Daniel Bader

January 19, 2016 10:09am

The next big thing in connectivity is elusively, almost comically, small. As cities get denser, and its citizens’ wireless needs more explicit, carriers are looking to new technologies as ways to fill in the coverage gaps left by mounting large antennas on increasingly crowded rooftops, or towers whose signals can’t quite reach every device it promises.

Dubbed “small cells”, these diminutive boxes are often installed on the street level — on light fixtures, or utility polls — or even in peoples’ homes, as ways of boosting cellular signals indoors or in dense urban areas. With a range of between a few metres to up to several kilometres, the category itself is a vibrant ecosystem of suppliers and distributors working with carriers to improve their coverage as demand for wireless data burdens existing “macro” cell infrastructure.

Image credit: Silicon Image

Image credit: Silicon Image

Most Canadians don’t care how they connect to their carrier’s wireless network, as long as the signal is strong and the performance vibrant. In large cities such as Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, density, both in terms of people and the signal-reflecting nature of tall buildings, has forced carriers to pursue a small cell strategy that, in 2016, will likely double in deployment from a year ago, according to a tower executive familiar with Canadian carriers’ plans.

Earlier in the month, SaskTel announced that it deployed Huawei’s Lampsite technology, a variation on existing small cell products, in two buildings at the University of Regina. Scott Bradley, Huawei Canada’s VP of corporate and government affairs, said the university had been looking to shore up its wireless coverage inside the thick concrete monoliths that comprise much of the campus.

Under the supervision of SaskTel engineers, the university’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Sciences oversaw the first Canadian deployment of Lampsite, a variation of small cell technology that creates a Heterogeneous Network, or HetNet, within its service area.

Now in its second generation, Lampsite generates three signals — WiFi, 3G (HSPA+) and LTE — and “offers” devices the best one seamlessly depending on a number of factors. When deployed inside a building, a single box can connect to a carrier’s network through a provisioned ethernet cable, or by picking up a weak signal from a remote tower and amplifying it.

“Lampsite is part of the evolution towards 5G,” said Bradley, whose company is pushing to be the primary hardware provider to Canadian carriers for the next-generation wireless standard. The idea is that under 5G, devices such as smartphones, tablets, wearables and other connected products will be able to simultaneously send and receive data from a number of sources; effectively, the distinction between WiFi and cellular will be eliminated.

Huawei Lampsite cross-section

Huawei Lampsite cross-section

In the meantime, small cell deployments will be increasingly common in densely-populated cities as data needs proliferate. In the U.S. and Canada, locations such as sports stadiums and school arenas are already well set up for small cell offloading. According to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index report, released last February, by the end of 2016 over half of all worldwide mobile traffic will be offloaded to a WiFi network or cellular equivalent, known as a femtocell.

In 2015, Telus reportedly deployed around 2,000 small cells in Vancouver and Calgary, a number that eclipses that of Rogers and Bell. While no carrier has shared official numbers of small cell deployments, Telus has reportedly been able to reduce deployment costs because it co-owns with BC Hydro a number of utility poles that are classified for cellular equipment use. Bell and Rogers deployed around 400 and 50 respectively, but every major Canadian carrier has yet to see costs of small cell equipment drop low enough compared to their relative coverage area to match the economies of scale of so-called macro towers, which cover much of Canada with 3G and 4G LTE signal.

One Canadian company, however, may single-handedly make small cells mainstream across the country — or at least in the western half of the country. Shaw Communications, which in 2011 reversed course on its decision to deploy a cellular network after spending $189.5 million in 2008’s AWS spectrum auction, currently operates some 75,000 WiFi hotspots across Western Canada and parts of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and western Ontario. While Shaw has yet to comment on its plans for Wind Mobile, which it is purchasing for $1.6 billion, one obvious measure to shore up signal is to augment its existing WiFi infrastructure with a network of small cells broadcasting what will inevitably be high-speed LTE through those existing nodes. Shaw expects to spend $250 million throughout this year and into 2017 to improve Wind’s network, eventually rolling out a robust LTE network once handsets are available that support the just-ratified AWS-3 standard.

Ultimately, small cells are useful to prevent waste in deployments of high-frequency spectrum on which many Canadian carriers have spent millions of dollars accruing. Whereas 700Mhz spectrum already exists to penetrate thick walls and travel longer distances, high-frequency spectrum like AWS and 2500Mhz can carry more data at higher speeds. Coupled with small cells, carriers can more easily fill in dead zones that, in large cities awash in glinting spires of modern capitalism, pose challenges for the engineers tasked with ensuring fast, ubiquitous connectivity.

  • crazicanuck

    FTW Sasktel!

  • J.S.Bach

    Crãp, now I’m going to have to double the amount of tin foil I use in my hats. ????

    • Elton Bello

      Haha g1

    • h2oflyer

      Get one of those old beanies with a copper spinning propeller.

    • Dec

      Try the Bakers & Chefs Heavy Duty Foodservice Foil up on Amazon. Bit pricey but can you really put a price on keeping them alien hackers from stealing your identity. 😉

  • Andrew Goldenberg

    Bell: Tiny Cell Maintenance Fee: $44.95/mo
    Bell: Tiny Cell Operational Fee: $18.95/mo

    Bell: Tiny Cell Bluetooth Adapter: $1999.99 Outright or $29.95/mo for the rest of your life.

    Telus: Tiny Cell Maintenance Fee: $44.95/mo
    Telus: Tiny Cell Operational Fee: $18.95/mo

    Telus: Tiny Cell Bluetooth Adapter: $1999.99 Outright or $29.95/mo for the rest of your life.

    Rogers: Tiny Cell Maintenance Fee: $44.95/mo
    Rogers: Tiny Cell Operational Fee: $18.95/mo

    Rogers: Tiny Cell Bluetooth Adapter: $1999.99 Outright or $29.95/mo for the rest of your life.

    Thank god for competition or this could end up being expensive.

  • fruvous

    Remember when Toronto Hydro Telecom tried this with OneZone? That failed miserably. Not sure if the big carriers would be willing to do this.

    • MassDeduction

      It seems to me that VoLTE and VoWiFi (and the ability to seamlessly hand off between the two) makes this a much stronger proposition. Not mentioned in the article, but it looks like Telus also deployed a tonne of small cells in downtown Victoria. They showed up on a tower map sometime in 2015. Likely due to the same issue that was mentioned in the article (Telus having rights to co-locate with BC Hydro). So it is happening to a degree already. It’s just a question of how far they’ll take it.

    • Elton Bello

      It seems to me tracking people will have 100% accuracy with this.

  • Pigs Can Fly

    Probably a method to more accurately track you.

    • Wake up sheeple!

    • I was kind of thinking that as well – they could get your location pretty quickly to within a few meters for the smaller ones. Again, most of the population would have nothing to worry regarding this but the potential abuse for something like this…

    • Elton Bello

      On the contrary, its the opposite. Everyone has to worry!

    • robinottawa

      Most people WOULD not worry, but that does not mean they should not.

  • Brad Fortin

    Android Authority recently had an article about the upcoming 802.11 ad, ah & af standards. If those standards could be incorporated into Lampsite and carriers work on their VoLTE/VoWiFi tech they could essentially blanket entire cities with good, steady connections.

  • Elton Bello

    Great option for CSES to track individuals with almost 100% precision. Be surprised if they didnt suggest this to the carriers. Works great for them. Be scared both taliban and white trash drug dealers. Big brother coming for you with a vengeance!

    • Dean D. Lubaki

      You think they can’t already?
      Carriers can locate any cellphone without the user knowing.

    • Elton Bello

      They can but this will probably be 100% accurate. And much faster in real time.

    • DMan

      Are you trying to say CSIS or CSE?

    • Elton Bello

      CSEC, they collect all data

  • naviz

    I’ve noticed Telus putting these up in Vancouver (Kits, Commercial, Granville St.)/Tsawassen/White Rock for the last few years. Some are literally metres away from peoples windows since they are on utility poles. Can’t imagine that’s too healthy. It’s not exactly a macrocell, but its not wifi router either.

    • Pigs Can Fly

      Yup I’m not far from Commercial Drive and seen them.

  • kkritsilas

    Regarding Shaw’s buyout of WInd, I don’t understand why Shaw wouldn’t immediately implement VoWiFI. It would address a large gap in Wind’s coverage, that being the building penetration issue. As well, with all of the WiFi hotspots that Shaw has in Western Canada, it will allow Wind customers to use those hotspots in areas where Wind has no coverage. I don’t know that they are not going to go that way, but I would have thought Shaw would have said something in that regard upon making the buyout offer for Wind.

    • dirtyKIMCHI

      Who’s to say that this is not already in the works. These kinds of additions/changes have to wait for the deal to get official approval.

    • kkritsilas

      Like I said in my original post, I don’t know. But I do think that:

      a) The deal is most certainly going through. There is no reason for it not to. Shaw doesn’t play in the cellular market right now, so they are not reducing competition. In fact, as of this point in time, Shaw has zero cellular spectrum (it was sold to Rogers, who then sent it to Wind as part of the Mobilicity buyout). It can’t be due to the financial might of the combined companies, as Wind is not a financial powerhouse by any means; they are turning some profit, but nothing significant to Shaw, so there isn’t a financial reason to reject it. It literally creates what Industry Canada has wanted all along; a 4th carrier that can compete with the Big 3.

      b) What would be the reason to wait to announce VoWiFi? It addresses a major reason that people use to stay away from Wind. Allowing VoWiFi now can only gain Wind more customers. It would also help tower congestion (offloading some customer traffic to the Wi-Fi hotspots for data and voice, while others use the cell towers), and improve speeds across the entire Wind network. It isn’t like Shaw doesn’t already have the hotspots in place..

    • McNucklefuts

      Guaranteed they will do all of this.
      They just need the official sign off from regulators and then need to install the back end equipment

  • Mike Wort

    Makes me nostalgic, when I think back decades to futuristic movies like 1984, Gattaca, Brazil. How quaint.

    • It was a long time ago. The world in Gattaca was not one I would want to experience but I keep being reminded of it as these new technologies are getting develop/released.

  • Ipse

    Maybe this new technology will reduce the ping times….it really takes a looking time for my data to make it to Huawei HQ and back….thank you Bellus.

  • robinottawa

    A “tower executive”? Cute!