The speed at which small cells have gone from being interesting ways for mobile service providers to increase network reach, provide high-performance coverage in dense traffic areas and serve as a platform for new news to necessities has been nothing short of breathtaking. In just a few short years, the explosion of personal devices, and demands for bandwidth-hungry data services like video along with the growth of social media have made getting wireless broadband as close to the customer with a superior user experience a financial and competitive imperative. Small cells are the answer.
The last point is now taken as industry gospel. However, the challenge has been that having passed the question of “IF” now comes the hard part. Recognition of urgency has raised a host of ones that serve as impediments to rapid deployment including, where, how, by whom, how fast and at what cost.
Two things have become clear when it comes to small cells. First, deploying them is different from deploying macro-cells or a Wi-Fi unit in your favorite coffee shop. Second, and a major part of the difference, is the tremendous amount of complexity involved. It includes dealing with site owners, local zoning restrictions, availability and reliability of power sources, integration with backhaul facilities, network optimization, and a true scarcity of skilled people to meet current and predicted demand.
In fact, it is clear that the number one reason small cells will not be deployed as rapidly as they could be, and many now agree should be, relate to issues surrounding how to assure expeditious, carrier-class deployments. Not only is the technology itself complicated, but getting all of the moving parts on the business model, property rights and regulatory sides of things is not a walk in the park. This is true globally. It is also non-trivial given we are talking about the deployment of hundreds of thousands of small cells, and possibly millions, in the next three to five years if the hurdles to hitting these numbers can be overcome.
With this in mind, Alcatel-Lucent (News - Alert) (ALU) has launched a major initiative, The Metro Cell Express Site Certification Program. Its aim is to address the nagging questions with the goal of accelerating small cell deployments via an evolving ecosystem dedicated to the task. This includes the all important mandate of making deployments cost-effective for the service providers.
The need to speed deployments up
Inaugural members of the Metro Cell Express Site Certification Program, demonstrating the diversity of interested parties, will include cable operators (MSOs) in the United States, a leading player in the global outdoor advertising market, systems integrators, managed services providers, site acquisition specialty firms and OSP Construction Specialists including Crown Castle, EdgeConneX, Knight Enterprises and Zayo, each bringing unique real estate assets, deployment capabilities and technical expertise.
The program is designed to help service providers rapidly integrate small cells into their access infrastructure. As Alcatel-Lucent points out, the technology to install and manage small cells is well tested. However, there is a big however. Gaining physical access to the variety of places needed for deployment, including light posts, bus stops, existing cable and right of way utility assets, buildings, and other street furniture is a challenge. What the program looks to achieve is to give mobile operators access to Alcatel-Lucent certified program members who have the knowledge and expertise to speed installation of metro cells.
Confirmation of how difficult this is comes from research firm Infonetics (News - Alert) whose October 2013 Small Cell Coverage Strategies: Global Service Provider Survey found that 56 percent of operators rated site acquisition as a key barrier to outdoor small cell deployment.
It is all about the site
Since this really is site-centric, it means operators, with limited in-house expertise in small cell deployment will have access to best-in-breed solutions and support to address key strategic needs such as real-estate, increased network capacity, ongoing break-fix and asset management.
The fact of the matter is that thousands of sites are available for mobile operators to mount metro cells. For operators it says there is the potential to quickly scale up to meet the growth and capacity needs. ALU says program members will have the ability to cover tens of thousands of locations leveraging ALU’s small cell portfolio and additional opportunities for pole and building attachment in large-scale.
Michael J. Schabel, Vice President, Small Cells, Alcatel-Lucent “Wireless operators have embraced small cells as an essential part of their ultra-broadband wireless network, but they must adapt to the new challenges associated with building, operating, and maintaining these new small cell networks. In order to accelerate and simplify the deployment of small cell networks, we have solicited the help from companies who have assets to contribute to the solution. While no company alone can address the 4P’s necessary for small cell deployment –people, power, poles and ports -- the group working together creates tens of thousands of qualified and available small cell sites, and we will further add to that by continuing to add members to this program.”
Expertise and deployment experience
Here are some factoids that ALU provided in explaining the advantages that can be gained from dealing with program members:
- Initial program members operators will gain access to more than 600,000 qualified sites including:
- Over 150,000 serviceable on-net buildings
- 325,000 street assets including outdoor advertising assets
- 30,000 roof tops
- 10,000 fiber to the building assets
- Dense aerial physical plant and fiber assets for backhaul
- Public utility right of way access addressing vast urban US market coverage
- Existing experience in indoor, and outdoor backhaul construction and operation
- Over 200,000 route miles of fiber in primary urban and suburban markets across the US
- Deep referencable experience in providing carrier and backhaul services nationally
- ALU’s experience and expertise in the area is undisputed having deployed small cells, with more than 60 commercial deployments, in 43 countries.
In talking with Jim Cocito, Vice President of Services, Wireless Business at Alcatel-Lucent, he highlighted a few important benefits of the initiative. “In talking with operators there is pent-up demand for small cells and a recognition of the need to move quickly. While Alcatel-Lucent can address most if not all of the challenges, the Intent is not to front end this but to bring players to the party collectively. Each partner will do what they do best, so operators can tailor capabilities for a solution that fits their unique needs at the lowest cost,” Cocito explained.
The cost gains can be substantial and have significant impact based on ALU’s extensive research on the subject and based on its experiences. These include according Cocito:
- 30-40 percent gains in improving time-to-market which translates into competitive advantages.
- Peace of mind for operators who know they are dealing not just with quality products but highly trained people.
- If everybody does what they do best in coordinated way it can bring down cost by 20 percent.
Interest is high
Because small cell deployments are such a relatively new phenomena in terms of the communications industry making game-changing upgrades to outside plant there is a skills shortage worldwide, and a scramble to get the right resources focused on deployment issues. One of the real benefits of the Metro Cell Express Site Certification Program, especially as it evolves, is giving operators not just peace of mind about the quality of their installations, but also the flexibility to work with ecosystem partners according to operators needs, relationships and preferences.
The ultimate deployment of metro cells can quickly reach numbers of historic proportions in terms of outside plant network element upgrades. The installation and management challenges are enormous but not insurmountable. However, what it means is creating a win/win for solutions suppliers, site owners and network operators, if the goal of carrier-class installations that are well integrated with other network elements and optimized for easy operation and manageability.
New business models are going to emerge as the ecosystem evolves so that cost becomes an attraction for speeding deployment rather than an obstacle. Hence, collaboration and certification are key first steps to providing assurance that rapid small cell deployment will be done right and with a value-proposition that makes sense for everyone. This is certainly something to keep an eye on as 2014 is already shaping up as a year where small cells become bigger news.
Edited by Cassandra Tucker