Last week was a busy week in the small cells world. The Small Cells Americas conference was held in Dallas, co-located with the Small Cells Backhaul, and Carrier WiFi Americas. Not only that, the quarterly plenary meeting of the Small Cell Forum overlapped with one of the days of the conference. And not content with that, ETSI’s Mobile Edge Computing initiative (kicked off in September) had the first meeting of its Industry Specification Group (ISG) in Munich the same week! My clone still being on back-order, I could only get to one of the events, and I found myself in Dallas on a chilly December morning, putting the finishing touches to (or writing from scratch, depending on who I was talking to) my presentation for the SCA conference.
One of the most interesting things about the conference was the clear presence of some vertical market stakeholders in the whole small cell adventure. For as long as I can remember, the dialogue at these events has been between vendors and mobile operators, but for the first time, we heard significant input from the real users of small cells. The very first panel session included Tom Keathley, SVP of Networks and Product Planning at ATT Mobility, who I remember took the very first meeting with Gordon Mansfield, Kurt Huber and me on 3G femto, back in 2006. So far, so unsurprising. But the next guy to him on the panel was Scott Cardenas, the CTO of the City and County of Denver. Neither an operator, nor a vendor, but someone for whom small cells in his own government buildings, and in the urban and rural settings of his constituency, need to make a difference. His use case was the most interesting one that I’ve ever heard of – enabling the mobile office for his overworked inspection teams. And what were they inspecting? Legal marijuana farms.
More traditionally, but still new to SCA, we heard from a representative of the Marriott Hotel chain, complaining about mobile reception within his hotels. New LEED regulations make new-built hotels practically perfect radio shields. And as existing buildings are refitted to improve their thermal insulation, so their macro coverage indoors practically disappears. His comments were echoed by others in the audience in the same position. The sense of frustration was palpable, and this is why…
It’s a curious fact of human behaviour that when things go wrong, we don’t spend too much time looking for the culprit. The first likely candidate we see gets the blame. If a hotel guest gets poor coverage, they don’t blame the mobile operator, they blame the hotel. Poor mobile coverage kills the experience for hotel guests, and next time, they’ll stay somewhere else. So mobile operators are mystified when the vertical market stakeholders complain. “Well, our subscribers aren’t complaining to us. What’s your beef?” is often their response. This experience is replicated in almost every consumer market. Another anecdote from the show, this time from Camden Property Trust a USA estate agent, “our customers prefer good mobile coverage to granite work tops”.
For the verticals then, coverage is key, and it’s almost unavoidable to mention the phrase “neutral host” in the same breath. Verticals want coverage, and their customers want coverage from all the operators. A vertical with coverage from only one operator is disappointing most of its customers. It’s time to find the neutral host solution for small cells, and that’s what I was presenting on. If you love your spectrum, set it free. For a price, obviously.