According to recent HIS market report, it shows that the Small Cell market cap is growing. In 2016, a total 1.7 million units shipped, generating revenues of $1.5 billion (up 25% YoY) and are expected to hit USD$2.2 billion in 2021. The indoor market comprising of indoor urban and enterprise sub-segments are key areas of the growth which overlap with the existing DAS market.
The boundary of Small Cell and DAS becomes blurred as the market pushes for Small Cells to be deployed in a multi-operator or neutral host environment, especially in enterprise locations. The traditionally solution is usually a neutral host solution that consists of a distributed antenna system (DAS) and Wi-Fi.
There are different approaches to provide neutral host Small Cell solutions.
One of the approaches is to have a “neutral host” operator operating the mobile network in particular location and the host to collaborate with other mobile network operators to provide mobile service to the MNOs subscriber. Essentially the host operator provides roaming service to others MNO. However, it involves spectrum and regulation issues which the host operator has to resolve.
Another approach is multiple-operator core network (MOCN). It shares the radio access network by using multiple public land mobile network (PLMN) to multiple core network. The shared RAN additionally broadcasting other operator PLMN identity. In this case, the host share its own spectrum with others operators. The sharing MNO subscriber bandwidth will be limited by the shared RAN resources. Moreover, it has potential interoperability issue between the sharing MNO core with shared RAN.
The barrier of multi-carrier, multi-band, multi-technology needs to be overcome if Small Cells are to emerge as a replacement to traditional DAS solutions. It should allow different operators to use their own base station in their own spectrum and core network just like DAS does. It’s predictable that Small Cell will play a more important role in the 5G network coverage, since the new 5G RAT requires massive MIMO and working at higher frequency spectrum. But it is doubtful that the Operators are going to share a neutral Small Cell device especially when it directly connects to their core network.
However, a new trend is emerging with regards to Small Cells and traditional DAS. It’s called the Hybrid approach. This is where Small Cells will feed a traditional DAS solution and provide coverage for the venue. Rather than feeding a building with multiple Small Cells from different operators and have multiple antennas for each operator as well as increased cost, the Small Cells are used a source to feed a DAS which combines multiple operators and frequencies to allow for a simple design and lower cost for the building owner.
In conclusion, to say that DAS is going to be surpassed by Small Cells is preliminary at the moment. There would need to be significant cooperation between the Operators for this to happen. Additionally, to surmise that it is a “battle of technologies” where one supplants the other is an incorrect argument and we position that for now Smalls Cells and DAS will live in harmony of each other.