Sprint has big plans for small cells

Sprint(s s) plans to make aggressive use of small cells in its future LTE network, launching tens of thousands of tiny high-capacity base stations in high-traffic indoor and outdoor areas in 2013 and 2014. Speaking at briefing at CTIA Wireless in New Orleans, Sprint VP of network development and engineering Iyad Tarazi said the end goal of Sprint’s small-cell efforts is a heterogeneous network, or HetNet.

HetNet gathers multiple access technologies under a single umbrella to create enormous quantities of capacity no mere macro network could supply (for a detailed description of HetNet check out my recent interview with Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg). Many operators have been talking up HetNet and the small cells that will be used to build it, but many of them tend to conflate small cells with the home and business femtocell deployments. And no one – in North America at least –has laid out such a specific or aggressive small cell strategy as Sprint did on Wednesday.

Tarazi said Sprint’s small cell rollout will occur in three phases:

  • This year and in 2013 it will redouble its femtocell rollouts network in homes and businesses at its customers’ requests and start using femtos to add spot coverage and capacity in indoor public areas.
  • In 2013, Sprint will begin a large scale rollout of picocells – think of them as small radio base stations that can be mounted on walls and poles – in high traffic indoor areas and big public venues. Tarazi said Sprint is targeting 400 buildings such as stadiums, conference centers and airports for large-scale pico rollouts, each venue supporting between 100 and 200 individual small cells.
  • In late 2013 and into 2014, Sprint will begin moving small cells outdoors, focusing on dense urban areas with lots of foot traffic and cellular congestion. Though Tarazi didn’t identify any specific numbers for outdoor pico deployments, he implied that they would be extensive. Picos, for instance, would be used to add capacity to large swaths of the downtown cores in major metropolitan cities like Chicago, Tarazi said.

Though there’s lots of talk of small cells flying around at CTIA most of them have to be taken with a grain of salt. Everything from home femtos to Wi-Fi access points to distributed antenna systems have been lumped together as ‘small cells,’ but Sprint is talking Small with capital “S”. By building picocells under its macro umbrella, Sprint will wind up with a multi-tiered network, with one layer devoted to coverage and other layers delivering gobs of inexpensive capacity in the areas its most needed.

Tarazi said Sprint doesn’t plan to stop there. The carrier will layer in Wi-Fi and femtos as well, and in 2013 it will begin adding Clearwire’s time-divison LTE capacity to the equation. “We plan to maximize all of those tools,” Tarazi said.

If Sprint can pull it all off – and even if some of those elements fall to the wayside – Sprint will have an high-capacity HetNet to be reckoned with.