Small cells challenges
by Dom Kimber, Commercial and UK Client Director
The challenges facing MNOs (Mobile Network Operators) are becoming very evident as they start to roll out 5G networks. Rising to such challenges is nothing new for 4site. We have been at the forefront of huge generational shifts in the way mobile and fibre networks are designed, deployed and implemented. But what’s interesting this time around are the technical and logistical complexities of next-generation Radio Access Network infrastructure.
5G relies on Fibre, a hybrid solution. That is a “marriage” of fibre and wireless technologies to ensure future proofing. One needs the other, as is becoming increasingly apparent. [Read more in our blog about fibre and wireless complementing each other]
5G will also rely on modularity and flexibility to deliver the high-density coverage that will make its ultra-fast speeds a game-changer in towns and cities. There has been a lot of talk about how C-RAN can centralise base stations and facilitate shared infrastructure, but right now we’re seeing greater interest in more affordable, small cell technology.
A consensus has emerged that small cells are an effective way to distribute baseband processing and drive 5G adoption. While the technology is understood, the logistics of rolling out low-powered cells with much smaller coverage – as little as 20 metres – presents MNOs with a massive challenge.
Fentocells, a subset of small cells for indoor use will also be part of the new landscape. Around 90 per cent of mobile phone and data usage is currently indoors and not on WiFi, something that’s only likely to increase with 5G and its faster speeds. This will be relatively straightforward for MNOs to service; it’s the outside coverage that poses the bigger challenge.
Accessing street assets
Small cells on street assets like lampposts and traffic lights will provide the level of outdoor densification needed to connect consumers and businesses to superfast 5G networks. More kit, however, means more planning headaches. Operators can’t afford it (the capital costs would never square with the ARPU); local councils won’t want to pay, and neutral hosts don’t have the ability to deploy on the scale that will be required.
Pilot schemes have provided a snapshot of what’s possible, but not at the scale needed for multiple operators to cover the major conurbations where 5G is expected to take hold first.
Importantly is the provision & sharing of unmetered/metered power. Preferably small cells will get power from an existing nearby supply which will significantly reduce the Capex/Opex costs in obtaining new connections often involving digging up footpaths and even crossing roads.
Changes to the Electronic Communications Code in the UK point the way forward with planning regulation amendments that encourage both small and macro cell deployment. The British Government is pushing local government to actively facilitate the deployment of mobile telecoms infrastructure. But is it enough?
While the need for increased infrastructure sharing is recognised, the best way to develop coordinated connectivity, that satisfies both public and private sector parties, is still unclear. Councils and local authorities will need to find a way to fast-track planning requests, but it doesn’t stop there. They really need to step up and become active participants in the design process. After all, 5G is all about empowering citizens, businesses, and tourists in their smart cities.
4 steps model for sharing and futureproofing
At 4site we know from experience that small cell densification can be problematic. MNOs regularly turn them into macro sites to justify the investment. For 5G to realise it’s potential, we believe that operators need to share infrastructure on a scale that has never previously been achieved.
Here are four steps that need to be taken collectively by all parties, public and private:
1 . Devise a new cost model – local councils must not make the mistake of thinking of this as a cash cow. They must make available the existing infrastructure (i.e. street light columns, traffic light poles, signage poles etc, as well as rooftops). At the same time, operators need to come up with a model based on a sound business case. There is precedent for new kinds of partnership. The City of London authority has developed a Digital Infrastructure Toolkit. This includes a standardised wayleave agreement to speed up the use of central government sites for digital communications infrastructure. The idea is to save all parties time and money while accelerating delivery of high-speed connectivity.
2. Shared infrastructure – the industry has not got a great record in this. Now is the time for shared site assets, shared backhaul, shared power and shared hardware. With the advent of 5G this is not just about towers, masts and radio access equipment, it‘s about street assets like cabinets and lampposts. Sharing backhaul has been unusual up until now, but it’s another way to significantly reduce the cost of rollout.
3. Ringfence operators – there has to be a new focus on neutral hosting to ensure each MNO is isolated and secure. 5G’s modular Service Based Architecture has a core with a new security framework that makes this possible. It facilitates network slicing, running multiple networks as independent business operations on the same infrastructure.
4. Future proofing – with the added complexity of shared small cells, MNOs must ensure that infrastructure is scalable and resilient, a long-term investment that’s fit for purpose.
There is an appreciation of the importance of 5G in satisfying the appetite for more data, for the evolution of smart cities and even rural broadband. But the benefits will only be realised if industry and state come together to address the infrastructure rollout challenges.
To ensure future success for next-generation mobile networks, it’s time for MNOs and governments – local and national – to think differently, and act differently.