First, there's the backhaul problem, meaning that small cell base stations must be connected to wired broadband and most folks would be, shall we say, less than enthused about the cell network sucking up all their home internet bandwidth. There are also technical challenges, as devices would be constantly handed off from small cell to small cell, lowering battery life and network performance for users. And lastly, there's a significant monetary cost to get the small cells deployed en masse.
Naturally, Grob has ways to solve to all of these problems, starting with Qualcomm's own small cells. The diminutive base station the company created is about the size of a couple of decks of cards and packs both smartphone and base station hardware, so it can see and talk to other units to provide more efficient network management to providers. Also, Qualcomm's UltraSON technology was created to mitigate the handoff problem -- in real-world testing on its San Diego campus using 19 small cells, the tech reduced the number of handoffs from 25 per minute to two per minute. While that's certainly an impressive feat, Grob failed to elaborate what it means in terms of an actual user experience as compared to service received from a regular cell tower.
Currently, the devices cost "about as much a tattoo" (whatever that means) and "have the potential to cost less than a phone" according to Grob. So, not exactly cheap, but if the company can start building a bunch of them, the economics will get more palatable as manufacturing ramps up and the costs go down. Plus, these distributed base stations can open up new business models and revenue streams for ISP's. Grob suggested that cable companies could stuff these small cells inside of set top boxes (which conveniently obviates the deployment and backhaul issues) and selling the added coverage to cellular providers. Or, a company could use a reciprocal access model, where an ISP provides the base station and users then get access to all other base stations within the network.
Qualcomm thinks that if it can get 20 percent of homes to house small cell base stations, and combine that with ten times the current spectrum allotted to cellular communications, it can hit its goal of providing 1000x our current network capacity. Naturally, acquiring that additional wireless spectrum for cellular use presents its own, significant challenges, but Qualcomm's thinking is that there is plenty of high frequency spectrum (like the WiMAX-friendly 3.5GHz band) that'll fit the small cell bill.
When will this massively capable new network arrive? Grob couldn't say, but he did mention that Qualcomm will be pushing to get that 10x increase in wireless spectrum over the next 10 years, and small cell adoption will be up to service providers to push to customers. So, it won't be available any time soon, but it's good to know there's a plan in the works to make it happen... eventually.