DAS and Small Cells Congress remains a popular event in the US. This European offshoot is now in its third year, and remains the only DAS oriented conference in the region. DAS vendors see a shift in funding away from operators where building owners cover all costs, even including the basestations. They see small cells, in various forms, as a low cost way to drive smaller DAS deployments, complementing rather than competing in some market segments. Neutral host organisations should see growing opportunities.
Smaller than previous years
Numbers were down considerably from last year to perhaps half the size, partly due to the unforeseen Lufthansa airline strike, and partly due to a far smaller US contingent. Delegates at this Munich venue were predominantly European, with some US and even a few delegates from as far as Australia. It’s notable that the DAS and related businesses have no community forum or lobby group to market and promote their technology or eco-system. I felt that each vendor was more intent on differentiating their own products or technology approach than promoting the industry as a whole. Even neutral host organisations who install DAS systems were careful not to reveal too many of their proprietary operating methods.
Morten Tolstrup of JMA delivered an excellent refresher workshop on in-building cellular and DAS technology. He reminded us that signal strength alone is no indicator of good data service, for which you really want high signal-to-noise ratio which enables higher levels of modulation to be used – encoding more bits per second – potentially achieving 256QAM within most of a building.
Presentations were a good mix from operators, analysts, DAS vendors and neutral host/system integrators. Commscope were the only Small Cell vendor present, positioning their own DAS and Small Cell solutions for different applications. The major RAN vendors were equally absent.
Nonetheless, the smaller event size encouraged plenty of networking opportunities and worthwhile discussion with exhibitors and delegates.
Setting the scene
Analyst Earl Lum reminded us that the major markets for DAS have traditionally been the US and China. DAS (Distributed Antenna Systems) are inherently multi-operator, multi-band and multi-technology – distributing signals around large buildings or areas fed from separate basestations. After a glut of activity driven by serving large stadia and public areas, operators are allocating less budget to expand DAS deployments. In Europe today, building owners would typically need not just to pay for the DAS system but cover the cost of any basestations and backhaul connected to it.
Earl reports ever increasing growth of cellular data consumption which shows no signs of letting up. With higher resolution screens coming even 4K video will soon be out of date – Samsung are working on 11K Ultra High Definition video. A data rate of 15Mbps will provide 2K video (double the 1080p HD commonly used today), while 4K video requires 25Mbps and 8K video needs 85Mbps. More data is being uploaded than before – iCloud photos ranked #1 for data traffic in one stadium. Ericsson are forecasting another 10x growth between 2016 and 2022 by which time the average data consumption per mobile in the US will be 25GBytes/month (up from 5.1GBytes/month at end 2016). By comparison, Europe is currently running at around 2.6Gbytes/month.
Stephane Teral of analyst firm IHS has observed a 15% drop in DAS investment in China during the past year, with a growing interest in Enterprise Small Cells. Brazil had been expected to be a strong opportunity because of the World Cup, but was mostly just upgrades. He sees a major difference in strategy throughout LATAM, where Telefonica continue to use DAS while America Moviles adopt Small Cell solutions such as Spidercloud. Between them they have 75% of the market thoughout the continent.
Pricing for larger DAS deployments can be reduced to $1 per square foot, but that excludes the cost of basestations driving it. Enterprise small cells could be used to achieve multi-operator capability at a lower price point than with larger traditional basestations. I’d comment that standalone small cells can meet an even lower price point, although these are single operator rather than multi-operator.
New building standards now commonly block RF signals
Many of the latest buildings are now designed to meet high standards of thermal and energy efficiency, resulting in poor RF signal penetration from outside. The LEED/BREEAM standards don’t include any requirement to provide cellular service, although I heard that in Australia this is part of their equivalent building code standard for larger buildings. Deveopers or owners have to fund the entire cost including basestations for all three networks. Other countries have a requirement only mandating coverage for public safety (ie fire/police), often satisfied by simpler repeater systems rather than full DAS.
Not all building owners are as concerned about poor inbuilding cellular as others. Many observed a considerable shift in mindset over the past year, with owners much more prepared to contribute towards solving the problem than before. The growing amount of unleased office space in London has sharpened interest to improve the chances of rental and higher rates. This mood swing hasn’t reached everywhere, with VIP Mobile Serbia reporting that owners still believe issues to be the operators’ problem. Sometimes they solve this for specific customers by using highly directional antenna from outside, but recognise this isn’t sustainable long term.
We heard some very good case studies of major installations. In Berlin, Vodafone deployed 140 sectors of capacity throughout the “Fan Mile” where more than a million Germans congregate for major celebrations. The basestation hotel is located over 20km away and connected by just two fibres, using DWDM to multiplex the capacity. This drives DAS radio heads on light poles with fibre and local equipment hidden in underground ducting.
Progress is slower in the UK, where Wireless Infrastructure Group took three years to bring their first outdoor single-operator site online in Aberdeen, working through a whole series of issues with local government departments. They are using this as a template for other urban cities where they also hope to gain a concession to rollout infrastructure as a neutral host. They used remote radio heads connected with their own dark fibre, providing the option to install additional equipment to support other operators in each street box. It’s really not a DAS system but rather a set of distributed remote radio heads sharing common cabinets and fibre backhaul.
There has been much wider progress in Italy, where CommsCon talked through an extensive series of indoor and outdoor DAS deployments which were more directly aligned with a DAS model, sharing a common RF distribution to hundreds of outdoor active antenna throughout the cities. For example, they already have over 200 shared outdoor sites throughout Milan.
Coax Cabling becoming more outdated
I overheard one delegate comment that his business was getting thrashed by small cell installers who can deploy over CAT5 Ethernet rather than fibre/dedicated cabling. Clearly thick coax cabling is much harder to justify these days, and some DAS products can be used with CAT5 cables at least for the last section within the same floor. Others require dedicated cable or fibre direct to each radiating antenna.
In one case, fibre is being connected not just to the kerb or the premises but directly to each individual hotel room. It’s justified by driving automation of everything in the room, from the door lock to the TV to Wi-Fi.
Huber and Suhner have established a separate business channel to sell fibre connection and distribution assemblies to neutral hosts, installers and other third parties.
Expanding into unlicensed bands
I presented on the topic of using LTE in shared spectrum and unlicenced bands, covering CBRS, LAA and MulteFire. These aren’t directly compatible with DAS today (most DAS systems don’t support above 3GHz) and the larger size of DAS sectors conflicts with larger numbers of Wi-Fi access points, potentially making LAA and MulteFire very inefficient. These unlicenced bands could be used as an overlay to complement existing DAS systems, but would almost certainly require small cells.
My take-away from this event was that the focus is shifting from DAS systems mostly funded by mobile operators who had also provided their own basestations, to a market for wireless infrastructure that includes the signal sources and is mostly paid for by building owners. Outdoor municipal systems would be strongly facilitated by each town or city corporation, where progress is hampered by regulation, unfamiliarity and lack of common standards.
Both indoor and outdoor are huge opportunities for neutral hosts and third party system installers. Commercial aspects include smoothing the financing from a CAPEX to an OPEX model which several DAS installers have access to funding to provide. Operators aren’t quite yet geared up to approve equipment or third party neutral hosts and installers to the scale required. Many new products (both DAS and Small Cells) are stuck in long approval cycles.
It seems to me that this conference could evolve from the narrow DAS focus today towards neutral host business, and cover more of the commercial arrangements rather than being primarily technical.
Neutral host does offer the DAS market a potential growing opportunity, but I think installers need to keep an open mind about what technologies are appropriate for each market sector and look to enable more business funded directly by building owners. Small cells can achieve lower price points, especially for small to medium sized buildings and where cabling costs are taken into account. Some applications would benefit from a mix of DAS and Small Cells. Overall, this will need more equipment and installers to be approved by operators, so that it can scale in size quickly and enable faster installation and commissioning times.