It's helpful to talk to a variety of industry players when seeking different views and opinions about the practical issues and progress of small cell deployment. To gain perspective on how the industry is progressing, we spoke with Clint Heiden, CCO (pictured left), and Doug Wiest, EVP Wireless of EdgeConneX, a US-based company specialising in speeding the delivery of mobile and wireline content. Both Doug and Clint have extensive experience in the US cellular and fibre industries, with Doug having been COO of American Tower and CEO of Lightower and Clint having been President of Sidera and PAETEC. Their backgrounds uniquely position them to comment on the disruptive changes affecting the industry.
This US company is primarily in the cellular and wireline content delivery business, but it doesn't own or operate cell towers nor the backhaul transmission itself. It designs and installs the "content exchanges" at cell sites and cable head-ends to partner with a variety of fibre network providers (e.g. cable networks, ILECs, cellular operators, etc.). An established player, it has provided connectivity to over 3,000 cell sites and created a pedigree with extensive experience around deployment of content delivery and small cell deployment nationwide.
The company portfolio includes access to over 5,000 commercial buildings and 65,000 cell sites and includes relationships established with many building owners to maximise the choice of telecom solutions. In addition, it is now building edge content exchanges throughout the US to further increase the speed of content delivery. This unique combination of a massive portfolio of cellular and data centre aggregation points is able to dramatically accelerate access to cellular data content.
The US cellular landscape doesn't include much RAN sharing today
"In Europe, especially in the UK, we've seen 3G operators collaborate very closely with their Radio Access Networks. We've seen full RAN sharing, where not only the same sites, towers and equipment are pooled but all the field staff are transferred into a common new shared business entity. There has been tremendous consolidation in the number of cell towers, with many duplicates being decommissioned and the equipment reused elsewhere."
"In Canada, Telus and Bell Canada co-operated to build out their 3G network, effectively building out half the country each and establishing national roaming to share the networks between all their subscribers.
"But in the US, there's been very little RAN sharing to date. Cell towers are mostly owned by a few large companies (e.g. Crown Castle, American Tower etc.) from which the operators rent space and install their own equipment. Perhaps the nearest we have is in some stadia and large buildings with a shared DAS (Distributed Antenna System) to which multiple operators connect and may share some of the costs.
"This leads us to expect each network operator to want to deploy their own independent small cells, both indoor and outdoor."
What's the scope for small cell deployment outsourcing?
"We see an opportunity for the real-estate portion of public access small cell deployment, dealing with the zoning and local planning requirements, but leaving the RF planning and configuration with the mobile network operator.
"The jury is still out about how much and what type of small cell backhaul would be deployed. Clearly, operators will use fibre where they can but this is not always cost effective or available close by.
"In terms of commercial models, we could do either CAPEX or OPEX outsourcing (and have access to capital if operators want us to do that), but what we've heard so far is that operators prefer to pay for the equipment upfront themselves with reduced on-going operational cost."
Are operators going directly for LTE or installing 3G?
"We've seen a couple of operators expecting to launch VoLTE before the end of 2013 so they are not worried about 3G small cell deployment. They are looking to add density to their LTE data capacity and eventually add voice.
"One other operator has indicated that indoor facilities are asking for both 3G and LTE, to match the mix of consumer devices in use today.
"We think that 3G will be a short-term need in the US for a few years while operators transition to LTE. Also Wi-Fi will definitely be deployed and used, so demand for dual LTE+Wi-Fi continues to be of high interest. This small cell/Wi-Fi combination is particularly in demand for indoors – we're not quite sure about outdoor Wi-Fi yet.
"The challenge with triple play (3G/LTE/Wi-Fi) is that with today's designs the equipment box can get quite large. Operators will find that from a zoning/planning outdoor standpoint, more limited functionality is going to be easier to deploy. So while we'd love to see long term reduced costs by simply combining LTE and Wi-Fi, it may depend on the availability and success of VoLTE. This feature being not yet quite ready is holding things back, and it will also need support within handsets and smartphones before it becomes widely adopted.
"We've been a little surprised to hear that some operators are keen on battery backup for small cells too, which may require a separate battery box on the ground nearby.
"From a cost viewpoint, everybody wants to move to a single small cell box (the wireless backhaul can be separate)."
Have you seen the smaller US mobile operators joining the small cell bandwagon?
"The greatest interest today is from the larger operators, but several of the smaller players have jumpstarted deployments. They can be nimbler and move more quickly if and when they choose.
"There should be plenty of opportunity for local players, especially those with close relationships to enterprises/businesses although we've not yet seen a lot of that translate into enterprise small cell installations."
How do you perceive the competitive position of DAS vs Small Cells?
"Overall, we believe the cost differential between DAS (Distributed Antenna Systems) and small cells is large enough that it makes it difficult for DAS providers to compete. This doesn't mean you won't see them where there is a particular need for capacity in specific situations, but the majority of times there will be a cost advantage for small cells.
DAS has an advantage in being a neutral host – it can be shared by multiple network operators. We could foresee a long-term requirement for neutral host small cell solutions."