The general consensus has been that Small Cells were used either to solve poor coverage issues (especially indoor) – so called not-spots – or to add capacity. A third reason is becoming visible today – improving Quality of Service and customer satisfaction. CTOs from European operators explained their logic at recent public conferences.
One of the few recent new residential Small Cell operator rollouts
Belgian network Proximus has not just been trialling small cells. Last November, they signed up Cisco to provide a range of indoor small cell products aimed at residential, small and medium sized businesses. Branded Mobile Coverage Extender, the smaller 4-user unit costs 5 euros ($4) a month while a larger 16 user Pro device costs 25 Euros. These are Cisco’s USC 3000 and USC 7000 in-house products, formerly Ubiquisys, combined with their ASR 5000 series Small Cell Gateway.
The service is 3G only and clearly advertised/targeted to solve coverage issues.
But it’s not just about coverage not-spots
Proximus CTO Geert Standaert views small cell deployment to be less about simple coverage holes and more widely about customer experience. At this point, it’s not at all for capacity which will be the 2nd phase – today, you can add spectrum, carrier aggregation – this is about good solid customer experience.
But he does think there will be a time where small cells are essential for capacity – when extrapolating capacity growth forecasts he can foresee a specific time where macro will be unable to meet demand. So he feels we all need to think ahead about how to deal with that. Today Proximus is designing more fibre in their network to be able to cope with densification in the future when required. Outdoor urban sites will still need the three critical capabilities - locations, backhaul, power – so operators need structured partnerships with other utilities, eg electricity companies, and must build good relationships with them.
Other European operators agree residential is still important
Speaking at SCWS 2016, Ervins Kampans, CTO Tele2 Lithuania, points out that larger enterprises tend to be more stable and stay in the same office buildings for longer periods. Smaller, growing and evolving medium sized businesses may need to move offices more frequently to accommodate changing numbers of staff and business needs. This affects the lifetime payback period of any in-building infrastructure investments and can justify higher levels of investment.
He thinks DAS remains the best solution for large public venues, especially new ones, but finds that it can be much more difficult to retrofit into legacy (i.e. historic) buildings. A large new office block can be viewed similar to a shared mast by all operators who just connect their own basestations to it.
Erwin thought that the majority of interest in Small Cells today remains in the residential market. More energy efficient houses, fitted with windows that reflect rather than pass through radio waves, create complete “white spots” indoors. So while service is good outside, a small cell is needed indoors to provide good service.
Urban deployment will overcome the challenges
Erwin considers the biggest issue for Urban small cell rollout remains backhaul. Often sites are in unusual or hard to reach locations, making it difficult to pull through new fibre connections. Wireless is a good alternative but adds initial cost. He also notes that its not always easy to connect up to electricity in the middle of a pavement – digging up the sidewalk can be costly and time consuming. I would think that sites which already have power, for example active advertising hoardings, sides of buildings etc. might be more favourable than non-powered bus-shelters.
So it seems that European CTOs at least are still actively considering best use of small cells for both indoor and outdoor use. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that residential is still seen as a strong use case, but with modern construction techniques increasingly used (including replacement windows), the problem can only grow.
Urban small cells still have logistic challenges, but partnering with other utilities seems like a sensible approach to speed up deployment. Those networks who have prepared the way will be in a better position to accelerate small cell takeup when needed to meet growing demand.