Interest in small cells grows, but installation challenges abound

Smaller base stations will offload mobile networks, but getting access to sites for them is proving to be a challenge

Small mobile base stations are getting more attention as operators combat growing data volumes, but rolling out the equipment cost effectively is far from easy, Telefónica UK's chief radio engineer Robert Joyce said during a round table discussion organized by the Small Cell Forum.

Use of small cells started in homes and now more operators are planning to use them in public areas as well, according to market research company Informa Telecoms & Media.

For example, SK Telecom in South Korea has started rolling out the world's first LTE small cell deployment while AT&T, Sprint and China Mobile have all committed to rolling out 3G small cell services, Informa said.

"We need to eke everything we can out of the macro cell grid first ... but what we find as we look forward and see the increasing demand from smartphones, tablets, etcetera, that the macro cell grid just isn't going to cope," said Joyce.

Telefónica is today using Wi-Fi, but is planning to expand that to include cellular technologies in small cells during the third quarter, according to Joyce.

Even if this is a new area for operators, the technology itself isn't the biggest issue. Instead, issues like access to power and sites to put the equipment, including lampposts, along with backhaul, pose the biggest challenges.

"The people that own the sites have realized how important they are to operators, and prices are going up rapidly year-on-year, and that is becoming a real problem around the world," said Mark Newman, chief research officer at Informa.

Also, places like exhibition centers may not be willing to let operators in, because they already make a good business selling data access, according to Newman.

Getting access is only the first challenge. For example, in London the power supply to lampposts is unmetered, so if an operator wants to put a box on one it has to go through all sorts of rigorous testing for the power company to be able to send a bill, according to Joyce.

Access to lampposts to put equipment on them is also restricted in London, so Telefónica has "to pay through the nose" for access, said Joyce.

While many operators are looking at using various kinds of small cells, the economic situation in many parts of the world will also have an impact.

"Small cells are something that is potentially quite exciting for the mobile industry. But at the same time we have to be totally realistic about the extent to which operators can afford to develop small-cell strategies given that operator revenue in Western markets is at best flat," said Newman, who thinks it will take two or three years before the market really takes off.

Still, the end game for operators is a network that will be able to make intelligent decisions depending on user conditions.

For example, even if users are within the coverage of a small cell -- that uses Wi-Fi, 3G or LTE -- it doesn't make much sense to connect them if they are on the move, so then it's better to stay connected to the mobile network.

Send news tips and comments to mikael_ricknas@idg.com

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Mikael Ricknäs

IDG News Service
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