There are various types of company offering to take the pain out of urban small cell deployment. JCDecaux, well known internationally for their highly visible street furniture, seeks to capitalise on their large estate of suitable sites. I spoke with Marina Marjanovic and Benoit Paquin to understand the scope and uniqueness of their approach and which regions worldwide are showing greatest interest.
Why is urban small cell deployment so difficult?
I’ve documented several times the difficulties surrounding outdoor urban small cell deployment of which identifying and securing suitable sites is a critical aspect. There have been several initiatives where databases of verified sites have been assembled, qualifying those with power and backhaul plus the ability to support adequate size/weight of equipment and with easy site access. Planning permissions vary widely, even between cities in the same country,
Various organisations offer to provide a service on behalf of network operators, assembling a vetted list of viable small cell sites, dealing with planning/zoning approval, commissioning backhaul and installing equipment. Some organisations only provide the site itself while others would handle all the logistics including installation.
The types of companies in this space include:
- Tower rental companies expanding into the city and urban landscape, typically using very similar processes
- Fibre backhaul companies seeking to expand their user base
- Logistics companies good at handling large, complex projects.
- Cable and wireline networks, who already install a lot of street cabinet furniture and can offer their own backhaul.
- Transport organisations with many potential sites to offer such as bus and subway companies, Transport for London etc.
Strong synergy between street furniture and small cell locations
JCDecaux would not at first appear to fit into any of the above categories but are getting better known within the telecommunications industry for the small cell services they offer. They do have large numbers of existing sites in the busy urban areas where most people are to be found given that their traditional business model based on advertising relies on securing the locations with the highest footfalls and best audiences, and thus where most wireless data capacity is in demand. Let’s face it - there’s little point in erecting advertising panels where nobody can look at them.
Many of these street furniture assets, already have power installed, which can be simply for lighting, regularly updating a static display or a digital screen, or providing services to cities such as interactive displays. Most are at street level, including on bus shelters, city information panels, columns, news kiosks, large format billboards or bike-sharing stations.
JCDecaux is present in more than 75 countries worldwide, and operates at a local level holding frequent discussions with each city authority. They have good long term relationships with many city councils and typically have 10-20 year contracts in place.
The assets can be easily transformed to host small cells in an aesthetic way, with minimal visual modifications and no visible equipment, and I loved the contrast between the blatant advert for the best network discretely hiding a small cell installation inside.
The need for multi-operator, multi-vendor shared small cell sites
In recent years, these contracts have been updated to include the option to embed small cells within the street furniture itself. Their initial design hosted only a single small cell for a single operator. In close partnership with Vodafone, over 200 were deployed inside the Amsterdam bus shelters as their first showcase. Their experience has shown that a multi-operator solution is much more attractive – it reduces the cost substantially for each operator while providing service for everyone. Their latest design has capacity for up to four separate small cells within the same asset. An RF transparent casing enables shared or dedicated antennas depending on the mobile operator requirements. Backhaul is typically fibre with separate strands for each small cell. There is no constraint on the technical design or network architecture – each operator can choose their own equipment vendor and product type, whether standalone small cell or remote radio head.
Some real-world installations are shown below:
Where permitted by cities, JCDecaux would supply a list of all available sites, and subsequently arrange installation of equipment, backhaul and power including any additional planning permits (e.g. for civil work). RF configuration and network commissioning would be handled by each network operator, although many of the latest products automate most of these functions. Operators could choose to take more than one slot at the same site, for example to enable carrier aggregation or two sectors. Although almost all operators are focussing on LTE for their urban outdoor densification, there is no constraint that prevents 3G or Wi-Fi.
Other form factors are possible, as shown with this bus shelter concept and real-world installation.
Growing level of interest from operators worldwide
JCDecaux operate worldwide with operations in more than 75 countries. I asked what level of interest they had seen for urban street deployments.
“We can already see several countries where there have been quite a lot of outdoor small cells deployed, such as US, India and Japan. Here in Europe things are somewhat slower. Operators are more aware of the capabilities of small cells and have been actively testing products, refining the business model and understanding benefits. We perceive greater adoption of urban small cells as being mostly just a matter of time in each market - we can see activity has already started in some areas/regions, while others are just waiting for operator needs to mature. We also believe that small cells will be key for 5G and that operators need to anticipate site acquisition to enable future mass deployments.
“Operators face a dilemma about whether to collaborate and share small cell deployments to reduce cost, or install their own for competitive advantage. Some had a perception that they could not share a small cell site because there would be too much equipment at each site, but now realize that this is possible, and that it also brings significant cost savings. We still see operators wanting to retain control over their own frequencies and network configuration.”
How would you compare to existing tower companies?
“We do see ourselves offering a more comprehensive service than tower companies – we provide not only large number of sites in dense urban areas, but also a full project management and deployment capability. We have always had a company policy to retain full control of our assets, and have built up a substantial field force that regularly visits and maintains each property. We are present in many countries worldwide from North America to Asia. It can be quite appealing for multi-national and national network operators to deal with a single business using the same processes and contract structure across many countries and across many cities within a country. Our partnership with the Vodafone Group is a good example.”