US operators show it is now critical to address small cell siting issues

It so often happens in the mobile world. The operators of Japan and South Korea pioneer a new network platform, and make it look easy. Then others follow, and discover the real complexities. It happened in urban small cells – a few carriers, blessed with plentiful fiber and strong regulator support, set an example which is virtually impossible to follow elsewhere.

For the mere mortals of the western markets, new approaches to siting and deployment are needed urgently, as they find that red tape and infrastructure issues are delaying their densification projects, just as these are becoming critical to the business case.

Reports of issues affecting the densification plans of the big four US mobile operators have highlighted the challenges in that country, whose carriers have always been cheerleaders for small cells, and major deployers indoors. But in the urban environment, they are finding that site acquisition issues are preventing them from rolling out small cells as rapidly as they need to do.

This is why the Small Cell Forum’s work with regional regulators and governments, and its Urban Release documents on deployment issues, are so relevant (e.g. ‘SCF076 Regulatory aspects of urban small cells’; ‘SCF096 Deployment issues for urban small cells’). Some of its most important work in 2016 focuses on smoothing the path to densification, addressing the specific needs and barriers of each region. For instance, it is working with 5G Americas on guidelines for siting and deployment of small cell HetNets, and with the GSMA on operator requirements in Latin America.

The situation in the US is becoming critical. On the one hand, all four national operators are now committed to small cell densification, since T-Mobile USA revealed last month that it had embarked on evaluation of small cell deployments. The operator’s SVP for technology, strategy, finance and development, Dave Mayo, told the WIA Wireless Infrastructure Show: “We’re beginning to do some small cell work in some of the big metropolitan areas, and I think we need to do that just to begin to build our muscle.”

In particular, TMO is looking ahead to early 5G or pre-5G roll-outs – like AT&T and Verizon, it is planning to test various 5G technologies from this year, including millimeter wave spectrum, which will be inherently a small cell bandwidth. But Mayo is aware of the challenges of deploying huge numbers of small cells. He told the conference: “We’ve got to industrialize the process because it’s going to be required for 5G.”

That notion of industrialization – a fully automated, rapid process which can be replicated anywhere – is partly enabled by technologies, many of them, such as SON, at the heart of the Forum’s HetNet 2020 work program.

But this shift will require a radical change in the regulations around sites, especially in areas such as US municipalities’ rules on public rights of way. The FCC has made a series of rulings over the past two years to ease the process – for instance, it approved changes to the federal environmental review process to make it easier to deploy small cells on buildings and utility poles, and extended the macrocell ‘shot clock’ to small cells and DAS.

But more needs to be done. Verizon has started deploying small cells in large US cities such as New York and Chicago, but CFO Fran Shammo acknowledged on a recent earnings call that it can take up to two years to deploy, once “you get a location, you negotiate with the landlord, you get the fiber to that location, because every single one of our small cells has fiber backhaul to a macro cell”. Similar comments have been made by Mobilitie, the deployment partner for Sprint’s 70,000-cell densification program.

All four of the US majors now say it will be critical to their HetNet and early 5G plans to embark on densification in the coming year or two. The new services that could support, and the social and economic benefits, should help accelerate regulatory change, but that must reflect real world operator requirements, which will make the Forum’s work in this area more important than ever.