Why Considering a Small Cell Deployment is No Small Matter

As the physical landscape is built out with macro cells, operators are looking more often to small cell deployment to address coverage gaps and capacity issues that affect network performance – but there are many things to consider.

The first is the deployment approach. With small cells, this typically manifests in two very different ways:

  • Proactively, with a strategic plan that aims to provide the most comprehensive network coverage and/or targets high-value network areas with capacity or offload needs
  • Selectively, via a “whack-a-mole” approach that targets the areas that have the highest complaints, greatest congestion, or highest signal interference

Both present significant challenges – particularly from city regulations and the need to find the right “street furniture” – i.e., light posts or telephone poles — for outdoor placements.

Regulatory and site challenges

Every local government has its own application procedures for an operator to get the necessary approvals for installation. Unfortunately, there is no standard application form, and there may be more than one regulatory body that has to approve a deployment (such as planning boards and zoning boards, along with more esoteric bodies such as historic district commissions). On top of this, timelines for approvals may run weeks or months. Getting those approvals may require anything from tinkering to wholesale overhauls of the operator’s plan. Additionally, one site may go through very easily while another down the street might not go through at all; it’s difficult to know ahead of time.

The regulatory maze is affected, in part, by the street furniture challenge — and questions abound. Are there physical sites to which the operator can request access? For instance, has the municipality already provided space on its outdoor lighting to others? Perhaps the city or town required its utility providers to bury their lines, so there are no poles to attach to. There may also be size, color, and appearance restrictions. In Chicago, for instance, there are plenty of light poles, but they can’t be used since they’re considered historic and more or less untouchable. Of course, cable providers might have an easier time planning their placement, since, unlike cellular operators, they may already have embedded assets they own (such as their own poles), or their own spots on poles or fixtures owned by others.

Data can help

Using analytics to identify optimal placement – such as examining cellular and network data to identify locations where capacity constraints would benefit from offloading traffic from the macro to a collection of small cells or trouble spots where coverage is weaker – and evaluating alternative potential locations for small cells can help pick specific locations for their placement. Out of 10 prospective poles, three might be all that are required, for instance. Analytics also can provide valuable insight into user behavior in particular areas, allowing operators to identify optimal regions for small cell placement. Conversely, the information can also help identify where solutions other than small cells, such as C-RAN, might be a better answer.

Once the deployment is done, the benefits become almost immediately apparent. Small cells provide capacity relief for a macro network in areas where there’s enough traffic to cause constraints by offloading traffic from macro cells to small cells, which improves network performance. They improve coverage in areas where problems exist, such as spots where buildings and other obstacles degrade access, and can be sited in places a macro cell can’t because of their smaller footprint. And small cells can also help provide higher-quality access, improving customer satisfaction.

Is it all worth it? If an operator wants better coverage, greater capacity, and higher quality, the answer is – in no small way — yes.

— Bhupinder Mann & Scott Robertson


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