In a deal just announced, ClearSky Technologies (who operate a Small Cell gateway as a managed service) has teamed up with Knight Enterprises (a cable TV and broadband contractor whose field staff physically install equipment in the street and in customer premises. The partnership, serving the South-eastern United States, offers a service similar but slightly more encompassing of that seen touted in the UK by Virgin Media.
We spoke with Dean Fresonke, ClearSky's Co-Founder and SVP Business Development, to understand more about the mechanics of large scale Small Cell deployment and why they've chosen to go down this route.
What do ClearSky and Knight offer?
ClearSky delivers managed core network services such as text messaging and switching to over fifty wireless operators across the USA. We've extended this offering to include a Small Cell gateway. We support 3G UMTS today and soon LTE but won't offer 3G CDMA. Our gateway is from NEC, so we can manage any of their associated Small Cell partners including Spidercloud and Ubiquisys (now part of Cisco). We already have our own LTE core network, so are not limited to just providing a gateway service. Our longer-term strategy is to be both carrier and vendor neutral, so we may also work with other gateway vendors in the future.
Knight is a cable TV and fibre broadband subcontractor with a large field force of technicians working in the Southeastern region of the U.S. They perform over 1,000 truck rolls (i.e. site visits) per day, with jobs ranging from installing equipment on street poles to commissioning end user equipment inside buildings.
The combined capability creates an end to end Small Cell service offering: Knight provides the Small Cell and backhaul installation and ClearSky handles remote provisioning and integration. After installation ClearSky and Knight combine on-going monitoring with truck roll capabilities for break/fix.
Who are your target customers?
The US is a unique market because we have four national Tier 1 operators and over 100 smaller independent Tier 3 operators, serving local communities. The Tier 3 market needs a complete end-to-end solution with low start-up and integration costs. We offer support for any mix of residential, enterprise and urban Small Cells and can scale on demand.
With the new partnership we are focused on the Tier 1 operators who dominate the Southeastern US region. In areas where AT&T or Verizon also has a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) business, they probably have the field force and skills to deploy Small Cells at scale. However there are many cities where one or other of these operators do not have an FTTH business. For T-Mobile and Sprint, all cities are candidates because they do not have any FTTH business of their own.
Looking more widely afield, there are tremendous opportunities to offer similar capabilities throughout the North and South Americas. ClearSky is actively working with multiple partners to provide just that.
Why can't these backhaul and installation arrangements be made directly with cable companies?
It's true that many of the backhaul links from existing macrocell sites are provided today by cable companies. They offer high speed Ethernet services delivered over fibre to many macrocell sites. This has become a substantial revenue stream for the cable operators as they continually strive to convert from simple cable TV companies to high speed broadband providers.
The trouble is that many of the cable companies don't understand how to make the economics of Small Cells work for them and their wireless operator customers. Rather than one large price for lots of bandwidth to a big tower site, Small Cells require a relatively small amount of low cost bandwidth to a large number of Small Cells. The traditional way a cable company and wireless operator work together no longer fits the situation.
As an example, assume a wireless operator asked a cable company for a price to install a backhaul service on a lamppost in a particular parking lot. No broadband is currently at the lamppost so the request would be sent to network engineering and then assigned to be designed and priced. This request is probably then passed down to a sub-contractor for a site survey. Some time later, the results go back up the chain, adding cost and delay at each step. Sometimes it might take as much as 8 or 12 weeks just to quote a new outdoor location, much less install it.
Contrast that with our approach. Knight is a sub-contractor authorised to self-provision the cable company's fibre distribution network. They can directly survey, obtain attach rights, lay new cable, and install Small Cells themselves, shortening the cycle time from order to live service from months to days.
We've seen that wireless operators are starting to streamline their outsourcing processes used to deploy smaller cell sites. For example, it is true that some types of service orders for backhaul from cable companies can be "bucketed" into a limited set of standard prices, depending on distance from the local cable head end etc. While this helps reduce the cycle time because the price is already pre-determined and avoids the need for a formal quote, the requirement to design, engineer and dispatch does not go away. We believe our partnership offers an even more rapid and scalable approach.
Would this also address indoor Small Cell deployments?
We offer both indoor and outdoor installation. Many buildings are already served by fibre, in which case backhaul can be turned on by provisioning a Virtual LAN (VLAN). Sometimes the interior of the building is already known and profiled by the wireless operator, reducing the design period to a matter of days.
When there is not an interior RF design, it's not that difficult to deal with. We've had good success with Ubiquisys (now Cisco) intelligent grid technology, which we found really does work. Half a dozen Small Cells positioned in sensible locations within the building are quickly planned on paper. Once installed, they automatically communicate with their neighbour cells, adjust their transmit power, and manage hand-offs. Rather than designing the small cells for the building, the small cells adjust themselves to their environment.
When we are dealing with a large building that does not have an interior RF plan, we are fans of companies such as SpiderCloud that use an on-site central controller to co-ordinate small cell services within a building. If the building is big enough to justify this type of deployment, then the amount of RF design required isn't all that much because of the inherent intelligence inside their Service Controller and SON (Self Organising Network) capabilities. It's counterintuitive that the bigger the building, the easier the deployment but it can be true.
All that said, the reality today is that many of these SON-based systems are not yet approved within the labs of the Tier 1 operators in the US. Without that sign-off, they are not available for deployment by us. In this respect, Tier 3 operators are much nimbler and able to move more quickly than Tier 1s.