Small-cells-as-a-service could be a reality sooner than anticipated, following the news that Colt Technology Services has teamed up with NEC to begin trialling the technology.

Last month, Virgin Media Business announced plans to launch a wholesale small cell network that will enable UK mobile operators to deliver faster and more robust internet connections than current 3G services or Wi-Fi.

The company intends to offer small cells as a hosted managed service, so mobile operators can simply add their own radio heads onto Virgin's infrastructure. This is expected to be more cost effective than each operator building their own small cell infrastructure.

However, Colt and NEC have stolen a march on Virgin, announcing this week that they are conducting the first ever live trials of small cells using Femto-as-a-Service (FaaS) with a large-scale European mobile operator, using a multi-operator Small Cell Gateway.

Bringing together NEC’s gateway and Colt’s hosting and connectivity, the FaaS solution allows any European mobile operator to launch Small Cells in their networks more quickly, allowing them to offload data traffic and improve the overall capacity of their macro network, according to the companies.

In addition, mobile operators can provide the associated benefits of higher voice quality, better data download rates and improved mobile phone battery performance onto their customers.

“Internationally, network sharing initiatives are becoming the norm to reduce Capex and Opex, and our FaaS approach is pioneering the virtualisation of the Small Cell network, enabling new offerings on a pay-per use basis with no need for network hardware,” said Valerie Layan, VP Wireless at Colt Technology Services.

“This FaaS solution is part of Colt’s larger Small Cell Managed Services initiative, and by using our own infrastructure and data centres across Europe, we can provide a quality customer experience, with end to end SLAs, supporting the mobile industry as it migrates to heterogeneous networks and better deal with the exploding mobile data demands.”

In fact, Colt's offering is very different from Virgin's. Colt is providing femtocells, which are primarily used to improve indoor coverage, whereas Virgin is providing metrocells – a type of microcell that is optimised for use in outdoor urban areas.

Virgin is also deploying 4G LTE small cells, whereas Colt's small cells only support 3G, although the company claims its FaaS will also enable LTE expansion, leveraging 3G/LTE dual mode small cells and facilitating LTE phones to fall back to 3G Small Cell technology to support voice.

“FaaS opens up the market for mobile operators wanting to launch Femtocell services to their customers,” said Peter Jarich, vice president at Current Analysis.

“With this new business model, they share in the economies of scale and benefit from the speed to market that a hosted and managed solution can offer.”