This year’s DAS & Small Cells Congress (Las Vegas, 13 June) might in fact be the last in the current format – but that doesn’t mean it’s going away. I’ll get back to that point later in the blog.

It certainly was topical, with talks on funding and business models, the role of massive MIMO and C-RAN architectures, negotiating in-building and campus small cell agreements and preparing for 5G, as well, of course, as CBRS and shared spectrum. But one topic that caught my interest were the presentations and discussions about FirstNet, the new emergency service network in the US. The most debated topic was FirstNet coverage for buildings, its challenges, benefits and opportunities, and how an LTE-based 700 MHz service run by a private provider could work – notably in getting rid of the in-building not-spots that make cellular communications difficult in an emergency. There have been some breakthroughs – notably in deployment of ad-hoc base station that can be deployed where needed and work with any backhaul – but rules, regulations and who pays for FirstNet in-building coverage is still debated. There are a lot of synergies with the UK version of the new Emergency Service Network (ESN), hence one to watch for the UK as it moves away from TETRA.

DAS and small cells still have, at the moment, very different strengths – DAS still has a better case as a multi-operator technology, especially in bigger buildings and venues with high user density, while small cells can be a good fit for medium and smaller enterprises and they should also be quicker and easier to deploy. But small cells still need to do more to find their way into the enterprise market. That said, the vendor situation is becoming less polarised. Commscope, for example, was historically a DAS vendor but with the acquisition of Airvana, it now has both a DAS and a small cell product.

Meanwhile DAS is evolving. Active or passive DAS solutions are no longer the sole choice. Digitisation is part of the offering with claims of featuring CRAN, XDAN and VRAN capability as part of the DAS platforms. Small cells appeared in the in-building environment but these small cells are changing too (e.g. with vEPC bolt-on), whilst products like LampSite help to blur definitions.

In fact the main impression this event reinforced is that there are many implementations of many technologies and it’s it hard to keep track on who’s doing what or why, even for the veterans in the industry. Is there a common roadmap or attempts to harmonisation? It’s hard to tell and leaves the target market (e.g. enterprise and venue) bewildered.

Which returns me to my opening comment. Indoor coverage isn’t just about small cells and DAS. In an enterprise, Wi-Fi could take care of data needs whilst voice leans on the macro network based on minimal coverage or based on VoWi-Fi. If you are a venue, you might also need to consider PMR or TETRA for emergency services.

More to the point, as my own presentation pointed out, enterprises (or venues) are not normally the preserve of wireless experts. All their owners want is ubiquitous connectivity that meets their business needs.

That’s the Real Wireless approach too. We recommend a technology-agnostic approach and a focus on a connectivity strategy driven by the venue owners’ aspirations.

There were a lot of manufacturers and system integrators at the show but the end users – the enterprises – really don’t care about small cells and DAS, and they are the people that most need to attend an in-building wireless and campus coverage-focused show. But there weren’t many of them. So next time this show will, I gather, reflect that.

Looking at multiple approaches to indoor solutions is what we do and what conferences on the topic need to do too. Don’t restrict yourself to DAS and small cells – or indeed one type of communications technology like cellular. Talk about meeting the needs and connectivity aspirations of your customers. That’s the sort of thing customers and end-users want to hear.

View the presentation slides here.

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