There are a wide variety of potential locations for outdoor urban small cells, but there can be many issues to arrange and secure the best sites. What actions can be taken to streamline the process and open up wider access to suitable sites? Following on from our previous articles on regulatory approval for the RF power radiation and for local planning/zoning approval for the physical size/format, we now take a look at finding and securing the most suitable sites. Is there an opportunity to create an online marketplace?
A wide range of siting options
You might think that the only place you’ll find urban small cells would be attached to street lighting poles, but there are many other potential options.
Today’s macrocells and microcells are most commonly located on urban rooftops. Look around urban centres and you’ll see antenna on many buildings with the equipment either housed inside or in weatherproof cabinets. You can also find street cabinets on the pavements/sidewalks next to dedicated street poles with internal antenna. These look very similar to normal street lighting poles but are dedicated for cellular service.
What’s different with the next wave of urban densification is that small cells will be positioned within the urban canyons, directly serving pedestrians, vehicles, public transport, and to some extent penetrating into nearby buildings such as retail stores and offices.
Street furniture is a common term encompassing not just lighting poles but also bus shelters, telephone boxes, utility poles (telephone, Cable TV, Electricity) amongst others.
Equipment can also be mounted on the sides of buildings. This can either be just the external antenna (with the basestation indoors) or the entire small cell unit. Advertising hoardings can be a good choice, because sites are typically located with good footfall (otherwise there wouldn’t be enough viewers of the adverts).
Sites have much in common with CCTV, which needs to have good line of sight throughout the busiest areas of a city. Indeed, co-location makes a lot of sense because both share a common requirement for power and backhaul.
Diverse site ownership is part of the problem
Network operators deal with a variety of different landlords. Some will own a single site but in many cases there are organisations that lease or manage a large number. These range from the largest tower companies (American Tower, Crown Castle etc.), public authorities or organisations (city councils, post/fixed telecom operators, retailers, banks, pubs, hotel chains, churches etc.). Some of these are outsourced and there are even contractors who specialise in seeking out potential new sites.
Typically there is a dedicated department within each operator that deals with site leasing, including all the legal and contractual arrangements.
Adding thousands of urban small cell sites will need efficiencies of scale, and network operators will likely want to deal with fewer organisations and use the same legal and contractual agreements.
The number of potential sites needs to be much larger than those actually installed. Typically a ratio of four or five options is needed for each active site. Radio planners can then evaluate between several options, weighing up factors including cost (site rental), estimated return on investment (traffic carried, service quality improvement) and operational accessibility (e.g. street closure required for each site visit).
Creating a database
This isn’t a new problem, and several vendors have taken initiatives in the past to establish a database of potential sites. These are assembled from landlords with access to many assets, and vetted to establish suitability.
Access to power and suitable backhaul (wireline or wireless) are clearly important factors.
- Alcatel-Lucent launched a new database of 600,000 potential sites in 2013. This continues today under the Nokia brand, marketed as their Small Cell Site Certification program.
- Huawei announced a “crowd sourced” small cell solution in 2014, and their Small Cells President Peter Zhou explained this further in an interview with us in 2015.
- JC Decaux, the multi-national advertising group, signed an agreement with Vodafone Group for access to over 100,000 assets in 14 countries.
- Tower companies, such as Crown Castle, offer their own site database. Their CCIsites tool provides comprehensive data on over 200,000 assets.
- City Councils have outsourced the problem to independent “neutral hosts”. The Wireless Infrastructure Group was awarded a 15 year concession in Aberdeen Scotland in 2014, opening up access to 45,000 assets including street furniture, ducts and buildings.
The Small Cell Forum proposes establishing a census of available assets within each municipality, but doesn’t state which organisation would take responsibility for it. Perhaps this could be outsourced by municipalities to an interested party (such as a tower company). Payment may or may not be required – a subscription to the database listing may be enough on its own.
It would seem sensible not to have different competing databases. Each city should have a shared common one with ease of access by all interested parties. The format should be standardised so that planning tools and operational systems can easily connect to them.
I think the Small Cell Forum (or perhaps some other organisation) should formalise the format and requirements for a centralised asset database. I’ve come across a few commercial products for use by individual operators to maintain their own sites, but there isn’t a mainstream global leader. Many are custom developed and/or little more than document repositories.
Alternatively, a commercial organisation (probably independent from an equipment vendor) could develop and promote a solution.
The industry should then encourage widespread adoption and develop a wider ecosystem to exploit it. Who knows, it might even handle commercial transactions for leasing and become the Ebay or AirBnB marketplace for small cell site rental.