Small Cells and Gartner’s Hype Curve

The Current State of Small Cells

After much ado, it appears that small cells are finally beginning to be deployed in earnest. The wireless industry has been talking about mass densification and exponential increase in the number of sites via small cells for the last few years. Now it appears the trucks are beginning to roll in significant volume. And that is good news!

However, as an industry, we need to continue to climb the small cell learning curve in both the development of the small cell equipment and in the deployment of that equipment on a site-by-site basis. Just as OEM’s will surely continue to improve small cell technology and work to reduce the size of equipment, service companies and infrastructure providers are still working to develop and standardize workable solutions for backhaul, power, zoning/permitting, attachments rights, etc. And all this needs to be done at a scale and pace to keep up with the exponential demand for bandwidth.

Recently, I was introduced to a better way to understand the evolution of small cells by Mark Kelley, CEO of openRAN, a provider of ultra-high speed carrier Ethernet backhaul. Mark shared how he uses Gartner’s Hype Cycle to view small cell evolution and noted that small cells are currently in the fourth of five phases on the Hype Cycle. The current phase is called the “Slope of Enlightenment.”

Overview of Gartner’s Hype Cycle

According to the Gartner web page, the “Gartner Hype Cycle methodology gives you a view of how a technology or application will evolve over time, providing a sound source of insight to manage its deployment within the context of your specific business goals.”

Sharing further from the Gartner web page:

Each Hype Cycle drills down into the five key phases of a technology’s life cycle.

Technology Trigger: A potential technology breakthrough kicks things off. Early proof-of-concept stories and media interest trigger significant publicity. Often no usable products exist and commercial viability is unproven.

Peak of Inflated Expectations: Early publicity produces a number of success stories — often accompanied by scores of failures. Some companies take action; many do not.

Trough of Disillusionment: Interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver. Producers of the technology shake out or fail. Investments continue only if the surviving providers improve their products to the satisfaction of early adopters.

Slope of Enlightenment: More instances of how the technology can benefit the enterprise start to crystallize and become more widely understood. Second- and third-generation products appear from technology providers. More enterprises fund pilots; conservative companies remain cautious.

Plateau of Productivity: Mainstream adoption starts to take off. Criteria for assessing provider viability are more clearly defined. The technology’s broad market applicability and relevance are clearly paying off.

Small Cells and Gartner’s Hype Cycle

As mentioned above, when Mark Kelley applies Gartner’s Hype Cycle to the evolution of small cells it is pretty clear that the technology is currently moving up the “Slope of Enlightenment.” Or, in the adapted words of Gartner, “the benefits of small cells are beginning to crystallize and become more widely understood while some failed technology has been scrapped as second and third generations of technology begin to be deployed.”

With Mark’s permission, I share how he illustrates the evolution of small cells on the Gartner Hype Cycle.

This is not only true of the technology, but also of the deployment process for small cells. At Md7, we watched the iPhone act as a Technology Trigger for network capacity and thus network densification. We ran up the Peak of Inflated Expectations in 2012 and 2013. And, after a couple of false starts, we retrenched as we went through the Trough of Disillusionment.

Currently, in the second half of 2016, Md7 has encountered a new, tempered excitement as we manage several small cell deployments in the USA and in Europe and climb our way up the Slope of Enlightenment. It is exciting to be a thought leader in the development of new deployment models and processes as we grow through this significant evolution.

If Mark Kelley’s version of Garnter’s illustration holds true, and I believe it will, then the best is yet to come. Over the next three to five years, small cells will transition into the Plateau of Productivity. This is the phase where small cell deployments become widespread, the technology and networks are optimized, the integration of cellular and Wi-Fi plays-out and deployment models become streamlined. And, on top of all that, we will continue to evolve toward 5G.

It is a very exciting time to be in the wireless industry.

September 22, 2016
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