Nokia Bell Labs demos drone-installable wireless small cells

nokia bell labs

ITEM: Nokia Bell Labs has announced a new small cell product that is so easy to install a drone could do it – and made the point by actually having a drone install one at its office in Sunnyvale, CA. (See above.)

Nokia says its “F-Cell” technology “eliminates the costly power and backhaul wires and fibers currently required for small cell installation to enable ‘drop and forget’ small cell deployments anywhere.”

Tech details from the press release:

The F-cell architecture is comprised of a closed loop, 64-antenna massive MIMO system placed in a centralized location that is used to form 8 beams to 8 energy autonomous (solar powered) F-Cells, each of which has been redesigned to require minimum processing power so that the solar panel is no larger than the cell itself. In this way, F-Cell technology sustainably solves today’s small cell and backhaul cabling, deployment and expense challenges for service providers and enterprises.

The architecture supports non-line-of-sight wireless networking in frequency division duplex (FDD) or time division duplex (TDD) mode, and the parallel operation of up to 8 individual 20 MHz channels allowing for a system throughput rate of ~1Gbit/s over existing LTE networks.

That architecture can potentially scale to enable up to tens of Gbps using higher spectral bandwidth, new spectral bands and a larger number antenna arrays, says Marcus Weldon, president of Nokia Bell Labs and Nokia CTO. “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.”

Which may be the case – Nokia did win a CTIA Emerging Technology (E-Tech) 2016 Award for its F-Cell. However, Nokia’s claim regarding F-Cell’s ability to deploy massive capacity on demand “with no pre-planning or civil works required, allowing for drone-based delivery of self-building wireless networks,” may be a bullet point too far.

The drone stunt in Sunnyvale is admittedly cool, but it’s hard to imagine mobile operators using drones to “drop and forget” small cells, said Rethink Technology Research analyst Thomas Flanagan in a research note:

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.

In which case, the drone angle is probably just something the marketing department thought sounded cool at the time. Certainly the F-Cell potentially heralds a significant advance in fast deployment of small cells with the power and backhaul issues automatically taken care of.

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