CoMP over DOCSIS: Femtocells in the Age of vRAN
As promised in the last couple blogs discussing DOCSIS based femtocells, we’ve saved the best for last. So far in the series, we’ve made the case for femtocells over DOCSIS networks and laid out the total cost of ownership (TCO) benefits of this deployment model. In this final blog post, I’ll share the results of some testing we’ve been doing at CableLabs on using Coordinated Multipoint (CoMP) to optimize femtocell performance in dense deployments.
Decluttering the Radio Signal
Let’s step back and look at a key issue that has limited the benefit of femtocells in the past: intercell interference. When femtocells (or any cells, for that matter) are placed in close proximity, the radio signals each cell site produces can bleed into its neighbor’s territory and negatively affect network performance.
With CoMP, neighboring cells can coordinate their transmissions in a variety of ways to work collaboratively and prevent interference. They can share scheduling and beamforming data to avoid creating interference. Or, they can use joint processing, which allows multiple cells to talk to a single cell phone at the same time, increasing the signal quality.
Although it’s not a perfect analogy, it’s a bit like trying to listen to a bunch of people singing their favorite song at the top of their lungs versus listening to a choir following a conductor, as you see in the following figure. The former is old femtocells, and the latter is virtualized RAN (vRAN) femtocells using CoMP.
Since its inception, CoMP has been largely believed to require fiber transport links to work. For example, in TR 36.819, there’s a whole section devoted to the impact of “higher latency communication between points,” where “higher” refers to 5ms, 10ms or 15ms of latency. In that text, gains decrease as latency increases, ultimately going negative (i.e., losses in performance).
However, with the increase in attention on vRAN, particularly lower-layer splits like the work going on in Telecom Infra Project (TIP) vRAN Fronthaul and O-RAN Alliance WG4, latency takes on new meanings with respect to CoMP.
For example, what matters more, the latency from one radio unit to another or the latency from one virtualized baseband unit (vBBU) to another? And if it’s the latter, does that mean CoMP can provide benefit even over long-latency non-ideal vRAN fronthaul like DOCSIS?
To find out the answers to these questions, we set up a test bed at CableLabs in collaboration with Phluido to explore CoMP over DOCSIS. We used the hardware from the TIP vRAN Fronthaul project, with an LTE SW stack provided by Phluido that supports CoMP. We installed two radio units in different rooms, each radio connected via a DOCSIS® 3.0 network to the vBBU. We designated two test points, one with a phone located at the cell center, the other with both phone in the cell edge/cell overlap region.
Notably in our setup, the latency from radio unit to vBBU and radio unit to radio unit were both about 10ms. However, the latency between vBBUs was essentially zero as both radios shared the same vBBU. This setup is specifically designed to test whether vBBU-to-radio latency or vBBU-to-vBBU latency is more important for CoMP gains.
What we found is that radio-to-radio latency and radio-to-vBBU latency can be quite large in absolute terms, and we can still get good CoMP performance provided that latency is low between the vBBUs and that vBBU-to-radio unit latency is similar for the radios in the CoMP cluster, as you see below.
In other words, to realize CoMP gains, the relative latency between a set of cells is more important than the absolute latency from vBBU to each radio.
We tested four configurations of phones at the cell center versus the cell edge, or some mix thereof, as the following figure shows.
In case 1, we see full cell throughput at each phone with CoMP enabled or disabled. This is great; this result shows that we haven’t lost any system capacity at the cell center by combining the cells into a single physical cell ID (PCI) and enabling CoMP.
In case 2, the phone throughput jumped from 55 Mbps to 78 Mbps when we enabled CoMP, showing a CoMP gain of almost 50 percent.
In case 3, when we enabled CoMP, the phone at the cell edge saw a throughput gain of 84 percent. In this scenario, the throughput of the cell center phone saw a decrease in throughput. This illustrates a tradeoff of CoMP when using legacy transmission modes (TM4, in this case) where the operator must choose whether it wants to favor cell edge users or cell center users. With more advanced transmission modes (e.g., TM10), this tradeoff is no longer an issue. Note that this is true of any CoMP deployment and not related to our use of DOCSIS network fronthaul.
In case 4, we expected to see significant gains from CoMP, but so far we haven’t. This is an area of further investigation for our team.
vRAN Femtocell CoMP in MDUs
Let’s look at an example use case. Cell service in multi-dwelling units (MDUs) can be challenging. A combination of factors, such as commercial construction materials, glazing and elevation, affect the indoor signal quality. As discussed in my previous blog, serving those indoor users can be very resource intensive.
As an operator, it would be great to have a low-cost way to deploy indoor cells. With vRAN over DOCSIS networks supporting CoMP, the operator can target femtocell deployments at heavy users, then build CoMP clusters (i.e., the set of radios that collaborate) as needed to optimize the deployment.
Putting It All Together
The testing described here has shown that CoMP gains can be realized even when using long-latency fronthaul over DOCSIS networks. As these solutions mature and become commercial-ready, deployments of this type will provide the following for operators:
- Low-Cost Hardware: vRAN radios, particularly for femtocells, are low-complexity devices because the majority of the signal processing has been removed and put in the cloud. These radios can be built into the gateway customer premises equipment (CPE) already deployed by operators.
- Low-OPEX Self Installs: With vRAN radios built into DOCSIS CPEs, operators can leverage the simplicity of self-installation. The ability to dynamically reconfigure CoMP clusters means that detailed RF planning and professional installation aren’t necessary.
- High-Performing System: As shown in our testing results, CoMP gains can be realized over DOCSIS network–based vRAN femtocells. This eliminates another of the previous stumbling blocks encountered by earlier femtocell deployments.