SCWS: Transformation, value and sustainability were the watchwords of an event that focused on real-world solutions

Another Small Cells World Summit is over for the year, but as with any successful event, the discussions and plans that were sparked by the conference will help to shape the industry long after the stands have been dismantled and awards taken home.

If 2022’s event was a welcome comeback after two years of being virtual, and inevitably somewhat reflective after two years of massive disruption, SCWS 2023 was back to full numbers, and strikingly forward-looking. There are many challenges facing the mobile industry, and the world at large, but the tone of the event was not one of negativity. Overall, there was a mood of determination to address difficult issues in a pragmatic way, and to set out a realistic but ambitious agenda to get the mobile business back on track.

The theme of this year’s conference was ‘unlocking network value: infrastructure for sustainable digital transformation’. That encapsulates the overall objectives of the speakers and audience. Yes, mobile infrastructure must enable visions of transformation, and there were plenty of interesting case studies of how dense networks could help support brand new applications and ways of working. But it must also deliver value for all the stakeholders in an increasingly complex value chain, and it must be sustainable. Ticking the three boxes of transformation, value generation and sustainability is challenging, and requires a combination of cost efficiency and architectural agility that was central to many of the presentations and ideas.

At least there was plenty of consensus, among a varied set of participants, that those three goals were fundamental to success. Deployers and users of small cell networks, from local authorities to airports to property developers, provided detailed descriptions of how this connectivity was changing their processes and enabling new business models. But it was clear that their success had been the result of very hard effort to align costs and technologies to the desired outcomes, and to forge cooperation between different stakeholders with different commercial goals.

Success stories – such as those shared by Manchester Airport and by the company behind of the huge Kings Cross development in London – provide very valuable insights for others evaluating their mobile connectivity options. But there was a sense that these are exceptional cases, and a key concern of this year’s SCWS was how to capture or codify the best practice of successful deployers, and make roll-out more repeatable and simple – and therefore more sustainable, because results are achieved more readily.

The titles of the six sessions, into which the conference was split, highlight this focus on scalability and de-risking of infrastructure deployment and operations, whether in public or private environments. ‘IT platforms for scalable models in private networks’; ‘the role of hybrid solutions for delivering a sustainable model’; ‘real world priorities for digital’ – all these point to that virtuous triangle of transformation, value and sustainability.

All this was addressed with a very real-world approach. Some conferences excite their audiences by being blue-sky and visionary – this one was appropriate to the challenging

business environment we are in, because the ideas that gripped the attendees were focused on pragmatic solutions. There was a session that looked to the future – ‘Generating value on the road to 2030’ – and there was a glimpse towards 6G and an AI-rich world, but from an angle of future-proofing what we invest in now, and ensuring that adoption of new platforms is iterative and sustainable, rather than a repeated cycle of ‘big bangs’.

In other words, there are lofty goals for mobile networks, but they cannot be achieved all at once, and they cannot be achieved by one stakeholder alone. Well-thought-out roadmaps and a strong willingness to share and cooperate will be essential to success, as the session entitled ‘sharing models for digital transformation of cities and enterprise’ highlighted.

This does not mean the event was short on vision or on technical innovation. The session devoted to architectures was very well-attended and lively, as many organizations set out the latest developments in emerging platforms such as virtualized RAN and millimeter wave networks. And at the ceremony of the annual SCF Industry Awards – always a great highlight of the event – there were several categories recognizing innovations that will push the boundaries of performance and value in the coming years, as well as awards for commercial achievement in the here and now.

Behind the technologies and deployments that were shortlisted for the awards were common themes, as in the conference at large, of finding practical solutions for very real challenges, current and over the horizon. There was high awareness of the scale of the challenges, as illustrated by the first published extracts from SCF’s annual Market Status report and forecast, which is based on an extensive survey of operators and deployers. When asked about their main challenges, respondents returned a mixture of perennial issues that face densification, and are specific to this sector, such as difficulty and cost of site access; together with others that reflect the macro-economic conditions around, including the impact of inflation on build-out costs and on willingness to invest in infrastructure, plus concerns about sustainability and energy efficiency.

The multiple challenges that face the mobile industry have resulted in a fairly cautious forecast this year, at least for 2023-2024, but that was not a cause for despondency at the conference, but a call for redoubled efforts to make small cells more deployable and valuable than ever before. Dense, agile infrastructure can be part of the solution to macro-economic and sustainability problems, and SCWS 2023 felt like an event that had taken a valuable step in that direction.