Municipal small cell definition will be powerful tool to spur densification

There are over 39,000 local governments in the United States alone, so it is hardly surprising that it has been challenging to achieve any uniformity of approach, when it comes to outdoor small cell deployment in cities.

Most municipalities around the world are keen to improve mobile broadband speeds and availability for their citizens, and to support new business and visitor services. Small cells are clearly an important way to achieve these goals in dense urban environments. Now, the need for densification is becoming urgent as mobile data usage continues to rise and smart city applications emerge, some with requirement for ubiquitous coverage (smart parking is a good example, since it may need coverage underground).

However, progress in deploying very dense city networks, in order to hit these targets, has been hindered significantly because operators have had to negotiate individual deals with every single municipal authority, and often for every single site.

Each authority has different regulations about permitted size, weight and emissions of the cells. And they may have varying rules and processes to gain permits to use municipal sites, such as lamp posts, which are becoming critical to being able to deploy small cells absolutely everywhere across the city.

This is why SCF believes a common blueprint, which would form the basis of almost all small cell siting agreements is essential. Without it, the time and cost involved in deploying each access point makes it impossible to scale up to the numbers required. As SCF member Sprint has said, it takes a day to deploy a small cell, but a year or more to get the permit, and at a high cost for every site.

One essential element of devising a standard framework for site deals is a common set of definitions of what a small cell is (and isn’t) from a municipal point of view. SCF is working on this as an urgent priority in its 2017-2018 work programme, drawing on extensive conversations with operators, site owners, municipalities and regulators round the world.

The aim is to make it easy for local governments to understand what small cells are and how they work, and the implications for their site locations. So, the definition will be strictly in non-technical terms. It will be flexible enough to be adapted to different specific situations in different countries, while retaining a common set of criteria which make up a small cell. For instance, while small cells will have increasingly varied form factors, some of them designed to address municipal concerns about aesthetics, for instance, they must all have certain attributes in common, such as low power levels and limited range.

SCF believes this standard definition will be an important foundation stone for a broader framework for siting deals in the future. While the actual fees for access to city infrastructure are always likely to be negotiated on a case-to-case basis, other aspects can certainly be standardized. SCF believes over 90% of the content of a siting agreement can be in common, without depriving the city of any revenue potential, or any control over its general broadband strategy.

One key factor is the approval of the equipment itself. In public WiFi, nearly all equipment is exempt from the lengthy approval processes which currently apply to cellular base stations. As long as an access point meets maximum levels of size, weight, power and so on, it does not need to go through the whole approval cycle. SCF has worked with the IEC to draw up a set of standard classifications of a small cell, which can be adopted by a local authority as the basis of a standard exemption policy – safe in the knowledge that aspects like safe maximum emissions have been considered in the light of deep knowledge across the whole vendor and operator community.

The other main factor relates to more uniform rules regarding access to sites, rights of way and so on. This is a regulatory issue which is being addressed in the US by the FCC and by federal state legislation – laws which, despite many debates along the way, are taking shape, and will have a significant influence on other regulators round the world. We believe the standard municipal cell definition will be an important tool to help frame these kind of uniform regulations, around the world.

If your sales or services are being held back by municipal siting issues, do make sure your voice is heard in the debate by taking an active role in SCF’s extensive activities in this area. In addition to the definition document, SCF is constantly engaged, through its members and through partners like the TIA, with cities and their requirements. As a member, you will have a chance to influence the development of this market right at ground level.