Alongside a strong interest in public access small cell products themselves, we've also seen plenty of attention for wireless backhaul solutions. But who's going to provide the specialist expertise to glue this together on the gorund - designing and choosing the best sites, the most appropriate backhaul option, then install and maintain them? We asked Peter Jennings, CTO at MLL Telecom, one of the UK's largest backhaul network providers, to share his view of where these skills will fit – a range of services that may soon be needed from others by network operators worldwide.
Where does MLL fit today and how will small cells change this? Will you focus on indoor public access, enterprise and/or metro cells?
We have a vast amount of microwave business in place across to the UK today, serving both national network operators and the public sector. We have our own field force and an engineering group constantly evaluating new concepts and products. Historically, a lot of our work has been focused around Mobile Network Operator backhaul.
We have gained a lot of experience in planning, design and site acquisition for mobile networks and also acquired our own spectrum to support microwave backhaul. This allows us to understand how best to use wireless to get the optimum solution within an area – evaluating a location and working out where fibre can most easily be terminated, where to position the best aggregation points, which technology to use and which vendor to select all the way down to the street furniture.
Going forward, we've been looking at how that relates to the needs of small cells, starting with metrocells and moving on to look at rural small cells later. We are conducting trials of 42GHz mesh-in-mesh/multi-point to multi-point at one customers site. We'd expect to use a mix of non-line of sight (NLoS) for lower capacity/hard to reach sites, 60GHz point-to-point for high capacity and microwave point-to-multipoint. There is no single backhaul technology that solves all use cases and we envisage a toolbox approach is inevitable.
At the moment, our main focus is for outdoor small cells which aligns most closely with our current skill sets. We expect indoor residential femtocells to be mostly self-installed probably ex-DAS installers would be a better fit. It's quite different from outdoor deployments due to different restrictions, planning tools and site restrictions.
MLL has some 500MHz allocation of 42GHz spectrum nationwide. What do you plan to do with it and would you prioritise its use above others (say 60GHz, or 28GHz) and NLoS sub-6GHz?
We own spectrum at both 32GHz and 42GHz across the UK and are currently using some 32GHz for point-to-point microwave but have very little 42GHz equipment deployed so far. Suitable equipment for 42GHz band has now become available and we are investigating what will work within a small cell environment, working with vendors including BluWan (42GHz) and Intracom (32GHz). We've seen products which are very neat – lamppost friendly design that meet the planning/zoning requirements with intelligent line of sight/self-alignment that make deployment much easier.
We want to position ourselves as experts who understand about all types of small cell backhaul including Non-Line-of-Sight (NLoS) and millimeter wave (60GHz). The combination of having our own spectrum while being able to select any vendor equipment gives us a great competitive advantage – it provides some extra tools in the toolbox that others don't have.
Who do you think will actually install outdoor small cells (e.g. council electricians, mobile operators, sub-contractors etc.) and what training will they require? Where and how will specialists be needed in the process (planning, service assurance etc.)?
A lot of this comes down to how you build the proposition and the processes around it. We've already conducted trials using a local council lamppost company to do the work - they already have the processes and certification to do road closures, electrical work etc. They are quite used to putting up Christmas decorations and replacing street lights, but not installing complex equipment where careful alignment is required. I can see there are a few things going to happen around this space that will involve more of this type of installation company.
A major factor will be how to install small cells at the lowest possible price. There are already a lot of smaller companies involved with commissioning work for macro network. Some will move into the brave new world of small cells and skill up to do street work, adding skill sets for alignment of high frequency wireless backhaul. Others won't make it - they just won't adapt quickly enough.
Site sharing and consolidation of national network operators means there are fewer contracting parties at the top, leading to there becoming fewer sub-contractors at the bottom end of the scale.
Any comment on the recent UK 4G/LTE spectrum auctions? Why was MLL bidding and how will you deal with the outcome?
[Ed Note: MLL Telecom participated but was unsuccessful in bidding for LTE spectrum in the UK auction held in January 2013]
We were aiming to acquire 4G spectrum to add to our portfolio of different technologies to build networks for other operators. It was never our intention to build our own retail network or setup as a competing new operator, but we could have used it for niche areas for dedicated customer groups. For example, if approached by customers who wanted some coverage for mobile data users in specific geographic areas that were underserved by existing mobile networks, we could build out a specific solution for them.
The UK regulator specifically allows spectrum winners to sublease spectrum on a fractional basis or geographic areas. For example, if one of the operators only wanted to use it in rural parts there are no legal reasons why they couldn't make it available for others to use in metropolitan areas to backhaul small cells.
What do you think operators need to do to drive the small cell backhaul market forward? Are there any specific bottlenecks holding things up?
While there is a lot of trial equipment available today, the price of Metrocells has not dropped to the right starting point yet and is still a bit on the high side.
I think one of the operators needs to be confident and commercially roll out a sizeable deployment using the best of what is available today, rather than waiting for something better to come along next year. This would give them experience of a larger roll out and prove that the solution works (or not). We could help operators do that using our NOC (Network Operations Centre), which already supports a wide range of different equipment and vendors.
After monitoring the trial for several months, if it is determined that vendor A equipment should be superseded by Vendor B, they can then transfer that into their own NOC systems. The long-term goal is to find the right solution for the end game, and that choice can be identified more quickly by starting earlier to gain large-scale practical experience.
Any thoughts on shared RAN = Multi-operator public access small cells?
I think this is very likely because the costs involved in small cells are not trivial. RAN sharing already a proven concept in many countries, so will probably be adopted in the longer term. Here in the UK, possibly we may see the industry merge into two physical networks over the long term. There is no restriction from a technical standpoint - LTE was designed to support RAN sharing from the outset.
What are the key industry milestones or turning points that we should look out for which show how quickly the transition to small cells is happening?
A couple of specific events I'll be watching for would be:
- Commercial Deployment: Look for the first operator to roll out a good sized commercial small cell network, rather than just Wi-Fi. Something of at least a square kilometre of outdoor contiguous small cell coverage.
- Dedicated Spectrum for Small Cells: Now there are more frequencies to play with, it will be easier for operators to allocate 2.6GHz exclusively for small cells and 700MHz for rural access.