Every telegraph pole across UK now a potential outdoor small cell site

Telegraph-PoleOpenreach, the UK national wireline infrastructure provider, launched a new service this month called MiiS. It offers to sub-let any of its telegraph poles for use as a small cellsite, providing a small street cabinet, backhaul, mains power and even a pole-top antenna. This promises to make it easier for network operators to target and deploy large numbers of smaller outdoor sites, especially in suburban areas, accelerating take-up.

Quick recap of the UK telecom infrastructure provider setup

BT, formerly British Telecom, are the UK incumbent telecommunications supplier. Regulators separated out the infrastructure side of the business (Openreach) which now owns and manages all the telephone exchanges, street cabinets, telegraph poles and copper/fibre wiring. They are mandated to resell services on the same terms to any retail communications provider including the mobile network operators. They can connect pretty much anywhere, even to items of street furniture.

BT Consumer sell fixed and mobile telecom services to consumers and businesses, currently operating as an MVNO using EE for their mobile service. Many other retailers (from food superstores to media companies) compete, in all cases with the physical installation being done by Openreach technicians. Virgin Media operate in parallel, using their own fibre/cables in the ground to offer a full quad-play service directly to consumers.

BT Wholesale package and resell a managed service to Mobile Network Operators, based on wired backhaul connections supplied by Openreach.
Both Virgin and MLL Telecom (who own microwave spectrum), also offer backhaul services to MNOs.

Introducing the MiiS

The somewhat awkwardly named MiiS (Mobile Infrastructure Infill Solution) introduces the possibility for almost any existing street telegraph pole to become a small cellsite. On request, Openreach would install a small cabinet with mains power, wired backhaul of your choice and mount an antenna at the top of the pole. The mobile network operator can then install their own small cell(s) in the cabinet, quickly commissioning and bringing into service.

The service was trialled in live operation over the past year and formally available to order from 23 October 2014.

A few observations:

  • Nationwide coverage: The location of every telegraph pole is held on a database, which can be used by RF planners to determine which might be best suited. 
  • Orders are "subject to survey", which involves a feasibility check including how power would be provided and physical space to install the cabinet etc.
  • First-come, First-Served: Only one customer can be the primary customer for each pole
  • Site sharing possible: There is space in each cabinet for several radios, allowing sites to be shared or sub-let
  • Choice of antenna: Either low band (700Mhz) or high band (1900-2600MHz), with up to 3 sectors and option of 2 or 10 degree down-tilt angle.
  • Infrastructure only, not an end-to-end managed service. Openreach will install the cabinet with power, backhaul, antenna on request. It can handle physical problems with those such as vandalism, storm damage, backhaul outages etc. But it isn't (and won't) install or commission the radio equipment itself.
  • Limited range of approved radio equipment. Today, microcells from Huawei, Ericsson and NSN are approved – the same vendors that already supply the macrocells for most UK networks. This may make it slightly more difficult for new entrants to win market share in this space, but the standard 1U rack mount, power and cabling options are very much industry standard.

Where would this be most useful?

Generally speaking, there aren't many telegraph poles in the central urban districts where cables are buried in ducts underground. This approach would be most useful in suburban and village settings where traffic demand is growing and/or coverage is inadequate.

Telegraph pole height is typically 8 to 10 metres, rather than the 15 metres for many existing cell towers. This makes it relatively short range, low RF power, filling in a capacity and/or coverage gap for a mobile network and releasing macrocell capacity for use elsewhere.

We looked at several AT&T suburban case studies earlier this year in suburban areas for which this approach would be a good fit. As mobile networks densify, this layer of suburban microcells should be a useful capability to augment overstretched, costly macrocells with targeted supply.

Advantages of this approach

Scale: Openreach are used to installing large numbers of boxes on our streets. Around 10,000 wired broadband street cabinets are installed annually, each with power, fibre backhaul and transmission equipment. The large, highly trained workforce have the skills to do this. The combined mix of fitting antenna at the top of poles with the skills to install electrical and electronics is very useful. This means the MNO commissioning team can focus on installing the electronics and check that they work.

Simplicity: MNOs don't want to have to work with large numbers of different landlords, site owners etc. The huge size and geographic coverage of the telegraph pole inventory provides a substantial addition to any prospective cellsite planning database. A single ordering and procurement process with an existing supplier should make this easy to adopt.

Pricing: We can't be very specific about this because it's not public. MNOs will need to take this into account when comparing with other technical solutions. Clearly this will have to be attractive to make it commercially worthwhile, and I'd expect this to be competitive. After all, BT don't have to pay for space occupied on the street.

Downsides?

The "first come – first served" method might lock-out some of the most desirable sites. The smaller coverage footprint of a small cell makes site selection more important than for larger towers.

Where multiple sectors are used (perhaps less likely in these smaller capacity sites), orientation of the antenna will be important and would need to be clearly determined and communicated by RF planners from the outset.

Arguably the most urgent demand for capacity will come from the dense urban areas rather than the suburbs, meaning this may not be the first point of call for outdoor small cell investment. It will depend a lot on the traffic growth profile of the operator, other choices available and pricing.

Competition and similar services

Nobody offers a similar service in the UK today. Virgin Media have been promoting their Small Cell as a Service solution targeted more at the denser urban areas. They also have street side cabinets serving Cable TV and telecom services in suburban areas but don't have the same footprint throughout the country. They also don't use telegraph poles so would have to erect them specially.

The US Cable TV companies are perhaps closest to this model. They have access to large numbers of sites where power and telephone poles are installed. They can also hang equipment from existing cables rather than installing it on the ground. A variety of other regional players in the US offer a combination of site and/or backhaul services.

Conclusion

Tower and backhaul suppliers are looking at the future direction of the mobile industry, trying to figure out where and how future investment will flow. This solution provides a further step along the path to densification of mobile networks.

The open access provided to all operators by the capability for new streetside small cell sites opens up a huge range of opportunity for mobile operators to choose from. It's particularly relevant to the suburban, rather than urban areas.

I could see this commercial model being popular not just in the UK, but adopted in other countries too. There is also the possibility for 3rd party Small Cell as a Service, building on this by installing and managing the radio equipment on behalf of one or more network operators. Arguably several regional players have already been working towards this in the US and elsewhere already.

The typical equipment used in these sites will be at the higher power end of the small cell scale – really more like microcells than picocells – and are likely to be provided mostly by the encumbent RAN equipment vendors.

Stuff I bet you didn't know...

Wooden telegraph poles can last 100 years or more. Perhaps the oldest surviving one is 119 years old.

Feeling sympathy for them? You can join the Telegraph Pole Appreciation Society for just a $5 one-off fee.

Further Reading

Openreach MiiS information page including fact-sheet and presentation

 

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