Small cell industry seeking stairway to heaven as predictions fail to materialise

Features

The small cells industry has been accused of "crying wolf" at its annual industry conference, a sign it shares similar problems with other much-hyped tech that has failed to take off in the expected numbers.

This year's Small Cell World Summit heard stories about how the sector is finally gaining traction. You would be forgiven for thinking you have heard this before.

In the sector's defence, it is far from the only one to be on the cusp of a breakthrough year for the past five years, after a Mastercard executive recently confessed the same thing was happening with mobile payments.

There appears to be some cause for optimism. Small Cell Forum chairman Alan Law said there are now more than 11 million small cells deployed globally, with growth across residential, remote areas and enterprise. He said the sector was experiencing a CAGR of 32 percent.

The industry body is looking ahead to another heavily hyped area of the telecoms industry, virtualisation, in the latest in its Release series of research.

While this will become pertinent down the line, European operators confess the barriers to entry appear to be as problematic as ever currently.

Benoit Graves, Head of Radio Access Network Strategy at Orange, told Mobile Europe there was an east/west split, with the likes of France, Germany and the UK still reluctant to grant planning permission for operators to set up small cells. As you move towards Asia, site access is a lot easier.

Dell'Oro Group Analyst Stefan Pongratz said: "The priority for operators is still the business case. They would rather optimise with the macro layer than move to small cells. That's still the mindset. Human beings don't like change so there's a tendency to default to the legacy systems."

This scepticism is in spite of the work of the vendor community, which Pongratz noted has introduced more architecture during the past five years for small cells than they did during the entirety of the 2G and 3G era.

But according to Mansour Hanif, Director of RAN at EE, form factors and costs remain an issue, in spite of the innovation.

He added: “Transmission and availability of sites is still such an issue. For the time being access to fibre will be a blocker.”

Speaking to Mobile Europe, he went on to say that predictions about an explosion in urban small cells have been far from the mark, as LTE performed arguably better than expected.

He reiterated that operators have been put off by the high opex and acquisition costs. If 10 small cells are to replace a macro cell, they should each be, at most, one tenth of the cost.

He said: "That's why you are hearing so much about SON (self-organising networks). If the baseline is to improve the customer experience, then you need someone to manage the cells. It's not cost effective to do this unless you have a robust, easy to maintain, lower powered small cell network that fits with the macro."

Hanif did admit there is reason to be cheerful about small cells but this is in the longer term and not at the levels some excited vendors originally expected. He said residential and enterprise areas will be popular in the years ahead.

Another area of opportunity is in remote regions. Traditionally small cells have been seen as a capacity play, a better quality alternative to DAS in stadiums or shopping centres. But EE has brought them to the village of Sebergham, north wowenest England.

Richard Hargrave, Senior Designer for Spectrum Management at the UK operator, outlined the old approach to installing networks. He said: "Traditionally it was the great big tall 30 metre towers that we put up in the corner of the farmer's field. These provide large blanket coverage to a significant area.

"But there are significant amounts of construction costs and rental, and it takes time and effort to get some of the services like power, backhaul and density of coverage to areas where the customers are much much lower than in urban areas. Getting revenue streams and a decent RoI is also difficult. It's very slow to deploy."

Hargrave also raised an issue facing many remote areas. Because they are usually quaint little villages that have been there for hundreds of years, they were originally founded close to water. This usually means they are nestled at the bottom of valleys that difficult for operators to get close to.

EE has been using a converged wireless solution from Parallel Wireless to bring Sebergham online. It placed a gateway at the top of the hill, with nodes dispersed around the village. The LTE access controller provides security and other functionality for the mesh network. The signal can hop from cell to cell over a relatively long distance before joining the macro network.

Despite plans to introduce this technology to 1,500 remote communities, Hargrave said the technology is not there yet. It only offers 4G connectivity and power, that tricky issue for all small cells, remains a problem.

But he said the technology offers a solution to the ever-changing demands of consumers. While EE is expected to boast of 90 percent population coverage once it hits that benchmark next week, that metric is not enough.

"People don't hope; they expect coverage everywhere they go. The whole question of population coverage is changing. It's geographical coverage which is important," Hargrave explained.

EE's Hanif took inspiration from Led Zeppelin during his presentation, observing small cells could offer operators a Stairway to Heaven in the longer term.

While there are reasons to be optimistic about the technology's rollout, especially in enterprise and residential areas and as the industry shifts to 5G, the Small Cells World Summit brought to mind another track by the rock legends.

In the shorter term at least, it could be a case that The Song Remains the Same.