What skillsets are really required for a cost-effective high-quality Enterprise Small Cell deployment. Is it the low cost, simpler Wi-Fi approach or the complex and costly RF engineering used for many DAS deployments? Art King, Director of Enterprise Services & Technologies at SpiderCloud, promotes a complementary mix which he describes as a Labour Sandwich.
There really is quite a contrast between the system integrators who install DAS and those focussed on Enterprise Wi-Fi.
DAS installers favoured by network operators will have extensive cellular RF expertise which understands the behaviour and interaction between indoor and outdoor systems, the importance of PIM (often down to poor physical connections) and have lots of practical experience from previous projects. These experts can walk through a building and quickly collect necessary RF data and floorplans to facilitate development of a comprehensive radio plan. They’ll take into account nearby outdoor cell towers, which wouldn’t be relevant for Wi-Fi but could drastically impact cellular service. They’ll also have close contacts with local cellular network operational teams, and be able to discuss directly how best to minimise impact on the existing outdoor network.
Wi-Fi installers have more in common with Enterprise LAN, implementing cabling, routers and wired connectivity throughput a building. They are very quick and efficient at pulling through CAT5 cables, plumbing in service. They may have less RF expertise, resulting in over-provision to achieve full coverage. Well engineered Wi-Fi results from a good radio plan, and there are many companies which have gained expertise doing this, using professional planning and commissioning tools.
Cost is an issue
Some system installers in the DAS community have been pricing themselves out of deals, overbidding because they are using a more expensive labour force – their quotes are just too high. Some Wi-Fi installers may not have the expertise to design a solution which is both cost effective and operationally satisfactory, and could risk project success.
But, some system installers are fortunate to have both sets of expertise which they can match to different phases of each project. They have huge competitive advantage and can offer what Art terms a “Labour Sandwich”.
RF cellular experts are employed at the initial data collection/design phase and again during the final commissioning/acceptance stage. In between, the groundwork of physical pulling through cables, hanging Small Cells, and testing basic Ethernet/IP connectivity is done by lower cost LAN/Wi-Fi installers.
LAN expertise is a relevant skillset, either building one out physically or being able to configure and use a VLAN within the enterprise’s existing Ethernet infrastructure.
Combining each skillset provides the best mix and match of skills through each phase of the project.
Pulling cables can be expensive and disruptive
Depending on the type of cabling required for a particular in-building wireless solution, the cost and disruption differs widely. Thick co-ax which can’t easily be wrapped, and require a minimum radius turn, constrain possible cable routes. Coax can require core drilling, fireblocks between floors and even civil engineering to become involved.
Fibre, which can be more common to connect vertically between floors in skyscrapers, is rarely used horizontally within a single floor. It would be an anomaly outside a datacentre. Special skills are required to run fibre to radio heads connected using that method.
The use of Cat5 cables in Small Cells implementations fits well with rapid deployment – it’s predominantly the most common used, and many Enterprise IT and systems integrator staff are familiar with it. There’s also the benefit that it can carry power too, avoiding the need for duplicate cabling or separate local mains power supply.
Retraining the workforce
Art believes that with many of the largest buildings already equipped with DAS, the more immediate market potential is for medium to large buildings where Small Cells offer a cost advantage. He’s seen some cellular RF experts becoming available as RF designers for the Wi-Fi systems integration community. Wi-Fi system integrators seeking to install Enterprise Small Cells would do well to soak up some of that talent.
It’s not just technical training though. The knowledge of how each network operator works, their internal processes, and contacts within each organisation to get things done are all extremely valuable.
RF engineers who have worked on outdoor deployments could also be retrained for in-building projects. The aspects here are perhaps less technical and might involve subtle nuances of indoor working in corporate facilities – considering what times of day to work, suitable attire, pleasing the building owners. LAN installers have this as part of their DNA, and live it every day. It’s not difficult, but important enough not to be overlooked.
A diet to grow large with
Art envisages that the industry will go through a transformation. In the medium term, more of the inbuilding systems will be commissioned directly by building owners, installed by third parties, and approved/connected by network operators.
The third party SI’s who succeed will be those with that mix of cellular RF, Wi-Fi and LAN expertise which allows them to meet both price point and technical competence.
Those that adopt the Labour Sandwich can then scale up and grow healthily to meet the predicted demand for in-building small cells.
Now pass the salt please…