It's been a year since we spoke with Arthur Giftakis, VP Engineering and Network Operations at Towerstream. This U.S. business (through its HetNets Tower Corp subsidiary) owns a variety of urban sites and operates a similar business model to the much larger tower companies such as American Tower – with the exception that HetNets is able to provide backhaul through its fixed wireless assets.
We wanted to find out whether the pace of Urban Small Cell rollout is matching industry forecasts, what (if any) is holding back progress and how the Urban Small Cell scene will evolve.
Why have we not seen more Urban Small Cells deployed to date?
Carriers [Mobile Network Operators] don't do anything radically new until it makes sense for them. Vendors certainly can't force them down a particular path, so tend to just offer plenty of advice and guidance until the Carriers are ready.
Mobile networks have gone through an entire iteration of overlay builds at macrocell sites, adding huge amounts of capacity but exhausting the options for further growth. They are now looking at both DAS (indoor) and Small Cells (both in-building and outdoor) very seriously. The outdoor urban small cell focus in the U.S. is almost exclusively for LTE. Sometimes we've seen RF planners initially being very unrealistic, such as specifying Small Cell locations directly in the middle of a street.
We are now seeing carriers acquiescing to accept more practical sites, say up to 100 meters away. We are present in the biggest U.S. markets, including Manhattan, New York and Chicago. We've seen RFPs [Requests for Proposals] issued by carriers looking for 2,400 or more Urban Small Cell sites in these city central areas and we can already offer 500 to 1,500 of those from our existing portfolio.
What types of Urban sites are being sought?
Cost effective, easily accessible sites co-located with traffic hotspots.
We have an extensive portfolio of rooftop sites that can be shared.
Until recently, we hadn't looked to leverage street furniture assets [Lamp-posts, bus shelters etc.] but realize the combination of both provides a distinct advantage because we can relay via rooftops using wireless backhaul.
We are not shying away from in-building locations, but that's not our primary objective today. We believe that Sprint has been particularly interested with Small Cells indoors, because their frequency bands limit in-building penetration.
How will these Urban site portfolios grow?
We plan to increase our portfolio considerably - today we are just touching the surface. In the beginning, some site selection was based on populated areas, but now with Areas of Interest provided by operators we are much more precise.
We don't yet see a lot of companies going out and trying to grab rooftops competitively. American Towers have limited assets in urban areas – surprisingly not as many in Manhattan as you'd expect. Crown Castle bought NextG, so they have a small cell focus based on DAS, while some of the bigger tower guys are still on the sidelines. We really haven't seen a lot of competition at this point but do expect further entrants into the market.
We are also teaming up with people who are claiming street furniture rights. Before, we didn't want to do that because of the backhaul nightmare. When combined with our low level rooftop, within a block, we can now mesh to that street furniture in a way which we couldn't do without the rooftops. This mix of rooftops and street assets is ideal, and this, combined with our "secret sauce", makes the street furniture assets more useful.
Why are you partnering with Alcatel-Lucent?
Alcatel-Lucent wants to accelerate take-up of Small Cells by making it easier for carriers to make use of them. They've developed a packaged solution to take on network design, location selection and rapid deployment by pre-qualifying a large number of potential Small Cell sites.
They are working with a number of partners and have already assembled a considerable number of pre-certified sites that could be used.
Now that the first large-scale RFPs are starting to hit the market, we can respond together.
Where we already have sites and backhaul, we can begin the installation immediately (starting with engineering certification), making it easier for carriers to put pen to paper.
Which operators are moving more quickly?
I'd expect we'll see Sprint move first, then AT&T and Verizon closely behind them.
Sprint is being driven quite differently with Softbank ownership. Softbank appears to be willing to commit whatever capital is needed to provide coverage and it seems they aren't afraid of using new technology including wireless backhaul. The company has become very progressive and aggressive.
How much backhaul capacity is being asked for?
DAS is seen as too expensive to backhaul – it needs Gigabits of capacity, typically requiring dark fiber. Carriers want to avoid that level of cost. Small Cells are much more efficient and easier to support.
We wouldn't run away from DAS installations and are happy to provide mount space, but would need dedicated dark fiber to the building. In some cases, this is available and we could make use of it.
We offer backhaul to our sites in increments of 50Mbps. All of our sites have minimum 400Mbps capacity, more than adequate for multi-operator Small Cell deployment.
There are many options for wireless backhaul to the street level. Millimeter wave (60-80GHz) with small antennas is a pretty good option where there is clear line of sight.
NLoS (Non Line of Sight) products are interesting, and we are trialing/testing several, but not yet ready to place a large order. The vendors have done a great job – it's like a radio on steroids – but we do need to distinguish between marketing and reality. It isn't truly full NLoS, there will be some places you still don't get signal. But in locations with even marginal line of sight, then the technology definitely works and works well. The only concern is getting throughput of 100Mbps one day and 50Mbps then next due to degrading RF characteristics, everything from a truck parking in front to environmental changes. So we have to be careful. There is definitely a place in the market for these companies, but whether mass or niche is currently unanswered.