It is now widely agreed that 5G will be built by a diverse range of organizations in order to achieve all its commercial goals. Small Cell Forum has been predicting this change, and working on platforms to enable new deployers, for years, since non-traditional operators have often entered the market first by rolling out small cells for enterprises or local authorities.
The rising importance in SCF’s strategy of new deployment models – including neutral host, private and multi-operator networks – was confirmed in our most recent small cell market forecast. This is an annual report, with forecasts built on a complex model whose most important input is a yearly survey of operators’ intentions to deploy small cells. In 2021, 84 mobile operators and 33 other small cell deployers participated, sharing their expectations in terms of budgets, site numbers, commercial drivers and barriers, and the roll-out partners they expected to work with.
Partnerships with other deployers or with neutral hosts can bring small cell networks to enterprises, cities or rural areas that urgently need high quality mobile services, but which have been challenging for an MNO to address in a profitable way. Mobile operators’ models are built on large-scale networks that provide generic capacity for everyone to use. By contrast, enterprises often have very specific connectivity requirements, while rural and remote areas may have insufficient numbers of users to make a high capacity network profitable.
Sharing the network with other MNOs or non-telco partners can improve the economics, or the MNO may choose to remain focused on the macro networks while enterprise specialists, private network operators, neutral hosts and cloud-based network-as-a-service providers fill the more localized and specialized enterprise gaps.
These new deployers will be enabled by flexible network architectures, access to cloud-based resources such as hosted cores, and by shared or industrial spectrum schemes.
They will be responsible for significant acceleration of small cell build-out because they are able to define strong profit models for environments in which MNOs would be challenged to make a business case. This may be because they can build on a smaller scale, or because they are able to offer enterprise-specific value-added services such as security, integration or device management. The net result is that, while shared ownership might appear to reduce the total number of cells deployed, in fact these new deployers will significantly boost the forecast installed base by 2026. This is because they will cover areas and use cases that would otherwise have been ignored completely.
These factors have driven the pattern of deployment forecast in this year’s report and are summarized in the figure below. By 2026, only about 23% of new enterprise small cells will be deployed directly by MNOs, and we estimate that, of those deployed by other providers, at least half would not have been rolled out at all if MNOs were the only deployers.
Such assessments highlight the importance and urgency of work by organizations like SCF to facilitate deployments of enterprise small cells by a wide range of stakeholders. This work includes lobbying for a friendly regulatory environment for PNOs and neutral hosts, including availability of spectrum for non-MNOs; specifying common platforms that reduce the cost and effort of rolling out a network; and evaluating best practice in commercial models.
The increasing diversity of the services small cell networks must support, the environments they are deployed in, and the organizations that build and manage them, will help to accelerate deployment in the early 2020s. It also has a profound impact on the whole supply chain, as the requirements for design and performance of small cells also become very diversified to support different business cases.
So, deployment models impact on every area of SCF work, and just as we expect 5G to drive a further diversification of mobile broadband use cases and applications, so the work of enabling new providers will continue to evolve and become ever-more central to the success of the whole cellular ecosystem.