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DAS and Small Cells Congress event report November 2017

DAS Congress Europe LogoAlthough primarily a DAS event, this year we heard more talk of Small Cell involvement.  There’s clearly a mismatch between the technical demands from operators and the funding sources available to provide them. No major new product announcements, but good networking and discussion of the issues holding back wider deployment.

This European offshoot of the popular US parent moved from its previous home in the outskirts of Munich to downtown Amsterdam with easy transport connections and a much wider choice of resuarants and nightlife. I’d estimate around 100 delegates attended, somewhat fewer than last year, comprising DAS vendors, system integrators and a few operators. The venue was large and spacious - the photo below shows part of the audience.

DAS Congress Europe 2017.jpg

DAS remains a closed market in many countries

Not everybody was aware of the JOTS (Joint Operator Technical Specification) that the UK operators agreed several years ago. DAS deployments which comply with it satisfy the technical requirements for connection to all of the UK operators. Commercial factors may prevent or constrain operators choosing to connect any individual installation, but this has helped open up the market. I heard of new deployments by Sunwave, Comba, Zinwave and others where before it was limited to just a couple of major vendors.

I understand this open approach has been the case in Australia for some time and has led to more widespread building owner funded in-building wireless deployments. Another delegate is currently involved with a similar committee developing rules in the Netherlands. (As an aside, this slidedeck from Cellular Asset Management provides a bit more insight into the JOTS scheme.)

This compares favourably with the situation in other countries – for example, one large US network operator has approved only three DAS vendors and won’t connect to anything else.

Oliver Bosshard, CTO Real Wireless, reaffirmed the changing funding source for in-building wireless systems throughout Europe. Where before it was entirely operator funded, now the expectation has switched to revenue from the building owner/operator.

However, operators are making unrealistic technical demands

Ben Patullo from Sunrise believes operators are acting as if Bi-Polar. They insist on lighting up all their available spectrum in the same way as outside, often as many as 5 different frequency bands, far in excess of what’s needed for an in-building system. He thinks it better to configure a few more sectors reusing a more limited set of frequency bands. Morten Tolstrup of JMA agreed, better to improve the signal quality (so can make better use of higher modulation rates) than insist on extra frequencies.

Sometimes the reasons for different bands can be down to physical layout or constraints. For example, a lift shaft rising quickly through many floors may be best served by a dedicated frequency with other bands deployed horizontally on each floor. This avoids making lots of handovers as you zip up or down between tens of floors. (I've also heard of dedicated small cells being installed in the lift cars to address this issue.)

But often the cost of the high specification, multi-band system is so high that it exceeds budget and thus just doesn’t get built. Simplifying the range of frequencies, reducing cost, would make it more likely to ensure systems are installed. He quoted a success rate of only 50% of systems designed into priced proposals, mainly due to financial constraints.

Outdoors, advertising sites can accelerate deployment

We’ve reported about JC Decaux’s innovative bus shelter/small cell combination before. They’ve had tremendous success here in Amsterdam, deploying 200 in one year (compared to taking over 18 months just for a single urban macrocell deployment). Discretely embedding up to four small cells which can be from multiple operators and using a disguised antenna (eg a clock face) making this very unobtrusive.

Marc Merlini explained how they have been trialling solutions in several countries worldwide, with success in the US (New York, San Francisco).

Bus Shelter

They’ve found that fibre is needed for 95% of sites because of poor line-of-sight options for microwave backhaul. In some cases, they are being asked to commission the equipment, streamlining deployment and reducing disruption. It’s taken some debate for operators to agree that much lower power RF is all that’s needed – a few hundred milliwatts rather than 5W or more. These are all LTE only.

HUBER+SUHNER who manufacture pre-formed fibre connector assemblies are part of that solution, and also showed off a range of fibre distribution panels for use indoors.

Combining small cells with DAS

The thrust of my own presentation was that many more sectors (i.e. separate RF channels or carriers) are needed to deliver high capacity, and these could be cost effectively provided by driving existing or new DAS systems using Small Cells. For example, SpiderCloud is now a popular choice from several leading large networks for use with any DAS system.

At least five DAS vendors have now developed their own or acquired small cell technology: Corning/SpiderCloud, CommScope/Airvana, Comba, Sunwave, Solid. With the exception of SpiderCloud, it’s all LTE only. This could allow them to develop their own more tightly integrated Small Cell/DAS solutions which incorporate lower cost basestations and avoid the need to interconnect through inefficient analogue RF. However it would require network operators to integrate more small cell vendors into their RAN back office/core networks which is at best a lengthy and tortuous process.

Rami Hasarchi, Cobham Wireless, paints a different picture. He’d like to see a standard digital CPRI interface between DAS systems and the Radio Network. Their architecture distributes CPRI through dark fibre to multiple sites from central “basestation hotels”. Vodafone Germany explained how they’ve deployed this in Berlin, adding an office and hotel to their Fan Mile deployment last year. They plan to replicate with similar systems in at least two other major German cities.

What’s missing or overlooked?

There was almost no mention of LAA at the event. Although this is already commercially deployed in the US, there appears to be little interest in Europe and almost none for DAS today.

I felt there was still too little focus or attention on a standard specification or interface that allows building owners to cost effectively pre-equip for in-building wireless. Whether that’s as simple as setting aside dedicated Ethernet LAN or fibre cabling to outlets on every floor, analogue RF interface,  CPRI standard digital interconnect or even an S1/X2 RAN interface who knows. But surely there should be more industry momentum towards that goal.

There was relatively little mention of added value services. Morten Tolstrup of JMA spoke about a wider range of services, such as accurate in-building location/position finding and IoT to enhance the business case for building owners.

What’s unusual?

Carmelo Cicero of Accenture called for the “Uberization” of network rollout. Qualified skilled field force technicians would presumably sign-on and be issued with instructions on where and when to go to install or maintain equipment. Perhaps they could give a lift to someone when travelling to a job?

Kathrein Street Connect antennas that were introduced at the show two years ago have run into some regulatory set backs. They need to be prominently marked, highlighting concerns that if someone with heart problems wearing a pacemaker fell directly on them it might cause problems and they’d need to be dragged clear. Range is also affected if too many people sit on them and absorb the signal or if it rains hard and water fills the cavity enclosure.

Richard Hargrave from UK operator EE spoke about deploying their Emergency Service Network using LTE. Any LTE small cell deployed will need to be able to serve both the ESN and also regular subscribers thus must have the MOCN feature – the ESN uses a separate PLMN code to differentiate between normal subscribers and first responders. They also plan to deploy vehicle-mounted units to project LTE coverage into buildings and around major incidents – these are in addition to the specially designed vehicles to cater for outages of the main towers, and will be installed into regular fire, police and emergency vehicles.

Conclusion

Despite pent up demand from in-building owners and a plethora of technical solutions to address it, the DAS market in Europe appears to be relatively slow at the moment.

Reducing cost, simplifying the technical requirements, enabling more competition and streamlining approval would all help. Operators don’t seem to be minded to enable or accelerate that today, and are constraining wider deployment that they wouldn’t have to pay for.

Whether new deployments are implemented by standalone Small Cells or DAS or a mixture of both, there is plenty of opportunity to fund sensibly priced, appropriately sized in-building solutions.

IamAmsterdam

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