What is the process by which new vendors and suppliers can be introduced, challenging and competing with the large established providers? With Small Cell growth arguably more constrained by non-technical aspects, we ask what needs to change to accelerate take-up.
Running a large utility serving millions of people is tough, whether transport (trains, airlines, roads), retail (grocery, clothing, fast food) or (electricity, natural gas, telecom). Introducing change is more difficult when downtime has to be limited or avoided entirely.
Telecom operators are constantly introducing new technologies, with LTE taking up most of the available effort in recent years. Each new 3GPP standards release adds more features, with Carrier Aggregation being a popular evolution and achieving higher peak data rates. VoLTE has been particularly complex.
Operational improvements are another major ongoing activity, constantly seeking out minor process enhancements and optimisations to cut costs and become more efficient. This might be using a different/alternative backhaul supplier, sharing sites more effectively.
Overall though, the need to keep service online 24/7 discourages more radical steps. The industry mentality is to be cautious. Few operators are truly innovative and prefer to see someone else take the pain of being first mover, following after the solution has been proven. Only where there is obvious competitive disadvantage will operators move quickly.
Examples of more rapid innovation include adoption of VoLTE to make use of 700/800MHz spectrum, shared RAN operations and the rush to be first to market with some early form of 5G.
Don’t confuse testing and trials with full scale deployment
Operators love sampling the latest technology. There are entire departments whose sole job is to play with the latest gadgets, everything from wireless backhaul to traffic transcoders/shapers, routers to active antennas.
Some will issue formal RFIs (Requests for Information) which detail the features and format they are seeking. This may lead on to lab tests and small scale field tests.
Operators generally like to be in a position where they understand the capabilities and limits of each new feature (and product vendor), so that they could move more quickly to introduce it if there was a sudden/surprise requirement.
But approval to proceed into commercial deployment can take a long time and will compete with other new features and operational priorities. There is only so much change any organisation can bear at the same time.
Introducing new products
Most operators will have a dedicated team who manage projects to introduce new services, features and products. Often the first steps will be cautious and perhaps over-engineered, with lots of extra testing during commissioning. Sometimes software updates will be required to fix bugs or improve performance. Lead operators work closely with their vendors to identify and solve problems.
Each operator often works independently, even within multinational groups, requiring separate testing and approval process for each new product/vendor. This makes it inordinately expensive and inefficient to introduce pioneering new products. Some are more enlightened and accept approval test reports from their sister companies, or are approved at group level.
Examples of major projects likely to be active today include:
- Deployment of additional LTE frequencies. This may require new antennas at each site, affecting site RF planning, requiring upgraded backhaul capacity and consideration of compatible smartphone upgrades.
- Introducing VoLTE. This is no small feature, involving extensive changes that will differ for each network because it has to replicate every 2G/3G voice feature and operate seamlessly between both.
- Site sharing/consolidation. Some operators are moving more quickly towards closer partnerships with their competitors, sharing not just sites but equipment (basestations) and backhaul links.
- Introducing Enterprise Small Cells. These require technical approval to verify operation of new products, as well as back office integration to allow them to be provisioned and report any faults. Where new vendors are involved, procurement teams usually want to establish a whole set of processes and contract terms.
Introducing partners may be easier than tightly integrated products
Cellular operators have established an excellent roaming solution, partnering with hundreds of other operators to provide global seamless access to cellular service with a single bill. While there is some abuse (the grey market in wholesale SMS, some opportunity for fraud), the system general works well.
There are straightforward agreed processes to admit new partners into the scheme. Roaming can be established through large roaming hubs, which also handle the financial settlement, or directly on a peer-to-peer arrangement.
The Wi-Fi Broadband Alliance established standards and procedures to enable Wi-Fi operators to join this cellular partnership. This would have allowed users to seamlessly roam to/from public Wi-Fi where available. Hotspot 2.0/Passpoint was the technical standard.
I can’t fault the specifications or certification process but there has been remarkably little uptake. Operators may be concerned about variable quality of service or may think they would lose cellular roaming revenues.
Enabling Small Cell Neutral Hosts
Rather than introducing their own Small Cells (which is of course always possible), operators may find it easier to connect with other partners who would commission and operate them. This would have much less impact on their own day-to-day operations and new product introduction.
I could envisage that different organisations may specialise on Urban vs Enterprise small cells, using different products and backhaul technologies.
We’ve documented and discussed several levels of neutral host scope recently.
A scheme would benefit from:
A clearly agreed minimum feature list and capabilities
Certification scheme, which confirms equipment complies with the above
Neutral host roaming agreements, probably remarkably similar to other roaming. This is most likely to be in-country, involving only the major network operators.
We might see this evolve in a country where several operators share a common view and want to expedite progress. Alternatively an industry alliance or Forum could take the lead. Up to now, the Small Cell Forum has kept clear of providing a route to certification. By contrast, the Wi-Fi Alliance has placed this at its forefront and most products come with their approval sticker.
The way forward
I expect we may see several neutral hosts appear over the coming year or so with tighter roaming integration into their national networks. Effectively, operators will be outsourcing the management and operation of Enterprise and Urban small cells to third parties. This has already happened to a limited extent in a few countries.
It provides a mechanism for Enterprise small cell deployments to grow, scaled in a way that operators are not setup to do so directly or efficiently. Such third parties will need to garner trust from their partners and establish strict operating procedures with their customers.
Standardised features, processes and a certification scheme would greatly help progress this approach. It remains to be seen if any industry organisation will take this onboard and accelerate adoption.
I expect we should see some visible progress on this topic during 2017.