Streamlined urban planning approval for small cells

City PlanningOne aspect that has been holding back more rapid deployment of Urban small cells relates to local planning authority approval. This is more about the form factor (size, positioning, colour etc.) than the RF emissions, but also includes access arrangements where installation work may require temporary street closures.

A tough task

It’s a mess. There are many different departments in a local authority all potentially involved in granting approval to install street equipment, and it can take months to work through the process.

One example is Aberdeen UK, where in 2015 the city awarded WIG (Wireless Infrastructure Group) a 15 year contract, granting access to 45,000 street assets/ducts and a remit to deploy shared urban sites. We learnt it has taken two years to complete the first live site in the city centre, a single lamppost style installation with remote radio heads connected by dark fibre. It’s still cheaper for them to dig up the streets and lay their own fibre than rent from the incumbent telco. To be fair, the group is using this project as a learning scheme to develop an accelerated approval template process which it could adopt in other cities.

Elsewhere, I hear that various US cities can be more or less welcoming. Some want to charge high prices for each street site, comparing them to large tower sites. Others just want lots of paperwork, with separate applications (and fees) for each individual site.

A critical factor is that there is often no single “champion” for small cells within the local municipality. Installers have to deal directly with many different departments for which small cells are a low priority. Road (for any temporary closures during installation), CCTV (especially if sharing sites), zoning (for aesthetic look/impact), building management (for access to premises), street lighting etc.

Some action is required at both national and local level

The US Congress is currently considering a so-called Mobile NOW Act (removing Needless Obstacles to Wireless), which would expand the scope of Federal Zoning rules, impose maximum fees for zoning permits and set tight deadlines for each stage of the application process. It even proposes a competition to "accelerate the development and commercialization of technology that improves spectrum efficiency and is capable of cost-effective deployment." Prize money is limited to $5 million.

While it could be argued that such initiatives should be driven by the telecommunications regulator (FCC, Ofcom or similar), perhaps the government department for home affairs (US Housing and Urban Development, Home Office or similar) should be involved to some extent.

Local jurisdictions can often make up their own rules where there are no (inter)national standards to adopt. Often these are diverse and even contradictory. This makes it difficult for new technology and methods to scale rapidly, because each town or city has to be approached as a unique project.

What we really want is a cookie-cutter approach that fits 90%+ of use cases. Of course there will be some historic buildings and unusual use cases which require more careful consideration and safeguarding.

Defining the standard physical format

Many countries have so-called “de minimus” limits where a box up to a certain size can be installed without special permission. Burglar alarm bells/lights are a good example. There are already numerous urban installations where relatively unobtrusive external antennas have been fitted, connected to a full size indoor microcell elsewhere inside a building.

EE showed me an example of one in Central London some time ago. The white antenna on the right below is much smaller than the red burglar alarm bell box. 

Pub Antenna

Today, you can find entire Small Cells that would fit inside such boxes.

The industry has been talking about various sizes and formats for several years. Is it 5 litres, 5 kg, 5Watts or something smaller? Weight is important when installed on a pole or other structure, to avoid too much twist and sway in strong winds. But perhaps 5 Watts is too much as we discuss in a previous article.

Defining a standard physical casing format

I understand New York has proposed a standard shroud format which can house up to two separate small cells from different networks. They’re not so interested in the underlying technology, more the overall casing and the impact that would have on the environment. Doubling up to share sites will reduce excess equipment and radically reduce costs.

It seems to me there remains much debate and discussion but little in the way of a firm stake in the ground. Operators remain fickle about their future requirements – will they want more features and reserve the right to change their minds. But surely they could agree on a single physical case size/shape to be adopted worldwide.

This would make it so much easier for vendors to scale up their products to address wider market size, reducing cost, complexity and time to market. It would still allow for plenty of differentiation, since this doesn’t specify what’s under the covers.

We might then encourage other national and local regulators to adopt this format, perhaps with a similar approach to the US NOW Act, to resolve the problem.

For more extensive discussion with examples of this type of problem, the Small Cell Forum recently published a discussion document on siting and regulatory considertions.

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