Urban and rural small cells: Are operators fighting the wrong battle?

Mobile Phone outside Urban and rural small cells: Are operators fighting the wrong battle?

It may seem ludicrous to describe the deployment of small cells as an emotional issue, but when it comes to outdoor small cells, the planning meetings are anything but rational. Communities are concerned about the thin-end-of-the-wedge that new cell sites represent and fight tooth-and-nail to prevent what they see as a despoiling of their environment. Local authorities and municipalities are often underinformed as to the issues and options for small cell deployment. Unable to evaluate alternatives, the result is stasis.

At the recent HetNet Expo a panel of telecoms executives voiced their frustrations at this situation. The group called on the FCC and Washington to take action to ease the deployment of urban small cells – perhaps by implementing a national framework to streamline the approvals process at more local levels.

The industry representatives pointed out that next-generation networks operating in higher frequencies with greater signal loss fundamentally mean that network densities must increase, and new cell sites must be found. As the report of the discussion noted: “the idea that a cell site should be located “somewhere else” could leave neighborhoods without access to ‘5G’ networks” with serious economic consequences.

Yet I can’t help but feel the operators are fighting the wrong battle here.

As we have written before, operators are still fixated on outdoor small cells because they are closest in process to their existing macro infrastructure. However, the reality is that any sort of commercially deployed millimetre-wave 5G network remains distant. LTE (4G) networks will remain the norm for many years to come.

In the meantime, Cisco estimates that at least 80% of mobile data traffic originates indoors. Although operators have also struggled with indoor deployments, there is a solution to that challenge to hand – a solution that also stands to generate new revenue streams for operators.

Shared infrastructure and spectrum for multi-operator solutions, such as ip.access’ Viper platform, can completely refashion the deployment model of small cells. It has the potential to make ‘enterprise cellular’ comparable to the existing enterprise Wi-Fi market and give operators access to the sort of volumes and scale that Wi-Fi vendors already achieve.

And in rural markets, the aesthetic and concealment problem remains a barrier that won’t be solved by forcing communities to acceptance. The answer, and it’s consistent with the lower traffic and revenue of these markets, is to share the infrastructure and the spectrum it uses between all the operators.

This is a major opportunity for operators if they are prepared to seize it. The clock is ticking. As CBRS heaves into view, licensed spectrum holders who don’t embrace sharing run the risk of other service providers snatching the opportunity from under their noses. Operators need to fight the battles worth fighting.

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