Femtocell Opinion, comment and reviews

Regional airports need Small Cells

Low Cost AirlineLike many people in the northern hemisphere, part of my summer break was spent at a small regional airport. I watched the arrival and departure of a low cost airline flight and tracked impact on the cellular network during the turnaround. It's a case which is crying out for a simple and cost effective technical solution, and one which a small cell would be ideally qualified to resolve. We discuss some of the practical aspects which might be holding back wider deployment.


The scenario

While waiting for our delayed flight at a small regional French airport, we saw little activity. A small plane was taking off and landing, presumably giving flying lessons. A small executive jet landed with a few passengers back from their holidays – much the way we'd all like to travel.

We sat in the small airport bar/café upstairs which had perhaps a dozen people in it. Downstairs, those checking in early walked through security into the departure lounge. During this quiet time, my smartphone gave me 3G service and I was able to adequately browse the web. Unlike many other airports, there was no public Wi-Fi service at all – neither free nor paid for. Being abroad, I had no opportunity for 4G roaming (and if there was, it would probably be prohibitively expensive).

As more people arrived, demand on the network increased and I saw the 3G signal disappear and drop down to 2G EDGE service, allowing access to refresh data on simple webpages and access email. Closer to the arrival of the inbound jet, the speed dropped to an unusable dribble.

Low cost airlines focus on short turnaround times to increase profitability. Airport staff were in place early and quickly moved the stairs in place, un/loaded baggage and refuelled while passengers disembarked. There was a long queue for the limited passport control checks, but they would have had to wait for luggage in any case. I could see many pull out their smartphones, wanting to make contact, check status or lookup information. With between 300-400 people in such a constricted space (approx 180 inbound + 180 outbound), I doubt if many could get much service out of the network I was using.

The aircraft was on the ground for about 40 minutes, and as it taxied out I could see the signal on my phone return back to full 3G service, with webpages once again accessible.

Observations

What this illustrates to me is that the network in this location is dimensioned for average, rather than peak load. The one time when most people want to use their smartphones is the one time when the network can't deliver. This may not show up on the overall KPI statistics, but it's a noticeable degradation by not meeting customer expectations.

All network operators look at the cost/benefit analysis when prioritising their investments. High profile locations – the sports stadiums, larger transport hubs, city centre plazas, shopping malls – all come in for close scrutiny and often share the cost of multi-operator/neutral host solutions. Smaller regional airports like this may not have the high profile to justify the time and expertise of planning experts to tailor a specific solution.

But perhaps some common sense is required to prioritise the high value to the customer of being able to maintain contact when en-route. Communication is important at transport hubs, even smaller regional airports, when people have time to sit and wait, and want to plan ahead or catchup on what's been forgotten. The value of good connectivity at these times is worth more to the user than simply measuring the number of bytes sent or voice minutes consumed.

A low cost technical solution

This is where small cells come in. Since these are low cost, both in capital and operating cost, and simple to deploy, it should be straightforward solution. One in the departure lounge and one upstairs facing the apron would offload significant traffic from the macrocell and cater for these traffic peaks.

This is not a use case for a Cloud RAN, DAS or Super Macro. It doesn't even need 4G (and given my above point about not using it for roaming, may even be counter productive). The cost of installation could be measured in low thousands of dollars at most. The site almost certainly already has some internet connectivity (for the airline check-in desks and control tower if nothing else), and isn't so remote that this can't easily be provided.

With so few devices required, it would be quite acceptable to install separate small cells for each of the networks, possibly co-located and perhaps sharing a common backhaul. It may also prove worthwhile to install Enterprise Wi-Fi, either alongside or using integrated products.

So I don't think it's the technology, or the cost of the technology, which is holding back a small cell deployment here. Restraining factors are more likely to be the lack of focus on addressing this type of issue, together with the processes and paperwork involved.

Too many diverse businesses to deal with

One aspect I hear come up frequently (and again on a recent webinar where several Tier 1 US operators spoke) concerns the commercial contracts between the operator and business/premises owner. This seems to be the most common delaying factor in deploying larger in-building systems (e.g. neutral host DAS etc.). Operators naturally want to ensure that any systems they connect to have clear commercial terms (not just installation but ongoing costs, maintenance, backhaul, upgrade provision etc.) and technically adequate/appropriate design and installation (AT&T's in-building installation manual is said to run into hundreds of pages).

Setting up these agreements with hundreds or thousands of different entities isn't easy to scale up. It's an issue that third parties can help resolve, presenting a single common commercial interface to the network operator but working with large numbers of businesses and sub-contractors to meet those standards.

Too much focus on 4G?

The industry seems to be very highly focussed on rolling out ever faster and more modern technology. We can expect this to shift towards VoLTE commercial deployment over the coming 12-18 months, something that I believe offers relatively little added value to the end customer.

At the same time, customers are becoming more dependent on continuous connectivity. In-building performance is certainly one of those common use cases, and this example of a small regional airport is not unusual.

Small cells, such as today's mature 3G products, can make a substantial difference to the real-world customer experience in many locations. The industry needs to find more ways of actively enabling their deployment and installation, overcoming some of the paperwork, commercial and practical issues that are holding them back.

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