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Nokia jazzes up small cell units with drone delivery, braves bird menace

Nokia says it has developed a solution to the operator-pursued dream of solving the challenges of small cell backhaul, by placing solar-powered units on rooftops using drones, following a successful demo in California this week. However, aside from adding a touch of drama to the performance, it has not been made abundantly clear why drones are even required in this venture.

The ability to simply place portable, wireless base stations on rooftops reduces the expense and man power that comes with installing fiber or power cables, as well as omitting the need to apply for planning permission, but it raises questions about what is preventing the units being removed or damaged? Either by adverse weather conditions, people gaining access to the rooftop, or even an angry bird.

Nokia needs to clarify how these units will be secured because it’s doubtful that the drones have been specifically modified to be able to screw or glue these expensive units into place – unless there is some sort of fixing base or rail system already in place, in which case a human would have had to install this prior to the unit being delivered in the first place.

Essentially, Nokia needs to lay out a clear plan of how this drone-delivered small cell unit system provides any realistic return on investment, because at present, there are countless variables inhibiting its viability.

If Nokia’s grand plan here is that operators can use drones to dynamically relocate the units to different locations, such as at a major event on the other side of a city for example, then the use of drones could begin to make sense – but surely an operator would want a permanently installed base station at a location attracting mass crowds.

The units themselves are called F-cells and are wirelessly connected to closed loop, 64-antenna massive MIMO (multiple input multiple output) backhaul systems, with each system forming eight beams to eight solar-powered F-Cells, claiming a 100x reduction in latency.

The technology has been developed by the Bell Labs business arm through Nokia’s purchase of Alcatel-Lucent, supporting wireless networking in frequency division duplex (FDD) or time division duplex (TDD) mode – providing eight 20 MHz channels allowing for a throughput rate of around 1Gbps over existing LTE networks.

Clearwire (owned by Sprint) did something similar back in 2010, when it tested coexistence scenarios between WiMax and LTE using FDD configurations using 40MHz of spectrum paired in 2 x 20MHz contiguous channels and TDD configurations using 20MHz. At the time, its LTE 2X trial network achieved peak download speeds on commercially available equipment and devices in excess of 90Mbps and upload speeds of more than 30Mbps.

Operators are also looking at densification programs with a focus on small cells in pre-5G trials in high frequency bands, as well as copper technology as an alternative to fiber for high speed backhaul. Nokia’s XG-Fast broadband technology has reached speeds of 10Gbps over existing copper cables, but companies are saying that XG-Cable is at least 5 years away from deployments.

Nokia also recently formed a partnership with Tarana Wireless, a start-up company devising wireless backhaul solutions for small base stations deployed close to the floor – winning it a trial with AT&T. Tarana’s work with Nokia involves its FlexiZone small cell deployment portfolio, which includes the new HetNet Engine Room service, using 3D street maps to calculate a specific location’s return on investment.

“F-Cell is a key breakthrough in massively scalable and massively deployable technology that will allow networks to deliver seemingly infinite capacity, imperceptible latency and connectivity to trillions of things. Nokia Bell Labs is again excited to re-invent the future and help drive what we believe will be a technological revolution, underpinned by the creation of a new digital network fabric that will transform human existence,” said Marcus Weldon, president of Nokia Bell Labs and Nokia CTO.

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