The demands of cost reduction and greater efficiency in cellular base station design are leading to a rapidly growing market for remote radio heads. According to a new study from ABI Research, this market is on track to exceed a value of $3 billion in 2016. Remote radio heads have been used in somewhat different form since the mid-1990s, in distributed antenna systems for in-building wireless. However, according to Research Director Lance Wilson, cellular base stations are now undergoing a design revolution. A base station was traditionally a rack of equipment inside a shelter. That design is now becoming anachronistic because it is expensive, and because the required coaxial cable running up the tower to the antennas often results in significant losses of power. The solution: “distributed base stations” in which the RF portion (along with suitable processing and an optical interface) is placed into a weatherproof box mounted on the tower near the antennas. This is the remote radio head.

“Reducing operating costs is especially important now,” says Wilson, “so the remote radio head has become an integral part of these new distributed base stations. Remote radio heads are also very ‘smart’: almost all are software-controlled and can be configured remotely to handle a number of air interface technologies within a given air interface family.”

The result: greater efficiency, lower power consumption, and the possibility of placement in locations with coverage issues. A single distributed base station can even have multiple remote radio heads for MIMO operation.

“Until recently remote radio heads were just considered as base station subsystems,” notes Wilson. “But now, especially with the advent of OFDM technologies such as LTE and WiMAX, their use has become much more important. Service providers are also upgrading their networks with remote radio heads purchased as standalone products, helping creating a market which will show high growth in both revenue and shipments.”

ABI Research’s “Remote Radio Heads” study examines the ways in which radio heads will capture an increasing share within the BTS marketplace. It includes shipments and revenue forecasts for 2009-2014 segmented by air interface, as well as ASP and vendor market share data.