Small Cells Put Extra Pressure on the Evolved Packet Core

Next Generation Communications Blog

Small Cells Put Extra Pressure on the Evolved Packet Core

By Mae Kowalke, TMCnet Contributor

Small cells are a boon for mobile network operators, as they easily and cheaply expand wireless network connectivity. However, they also can strain an operator’s evolved packet core (EPC).

“The EPC may be called upon to deliver a significant increase in scale, capacity, and performance beyond that which was required initially to support the macro-cellular network,” noted David Nowoswiat, Sr. Product and Solutions Marketing Manager, Alcatel-Lucent in a recent TechZine posting, Is your EPC ready for the small cells onslaught? He suggests that operators look at three areas when examining if their EPC is up for the challenge.

First, is the network architecture ready for numerous small cells. Two of the options involve the addition of a small cell gateway to aggregate control and/or user traffic from a group of small cells back to the EPC, while a third option brings direct connectivity from each small cell to the EPC.

Adding a small cell gateway reduces the scaling and capacity requirements of the EPC but increases the network and operations complexity, and connecting the EPC directly to each small cell significantly increases its scalability and performance requirements yet keeps the network flat. Each operator will need to assess what makes sense in their particular case.

Second, does the EPC support the scaling and performance of the additional small cells load.

“If it’s directly connected to the small cell network, the biggest impact is on the control plane and the mobility management entity (MME) -- with all of the additional signaling that’s required,” noted Nowoswiat. But the EPC also should support an integrated and operationally simple model.

Third, is the mobile operator to offload data to take some of the load off of the EPC. Local breakout options can be implemented in small cell networks to offload data traffic that brings little value to the mobile operator, thus saving the EPC from added load. In that case, though, the EPC must support the requirements necessary to redirect traffic to the appropriate gateway and packet data network.

Nowoswiat questions whether most EPCs are up to the challenge. Is a virtual EPC a better option and a way to handle the extra load from small cells?  While the answer is “it depends,” to learn more about EPC and small cell network choices the whitepaper Evolved Packet Core for Small Cell Networks, which compares architecture options, is a great place to start. 

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