Small cells

Small Cells Throw Up Big Challenges for Operators

While wireless equipment suppliers have developed a new generation of small cells designed for public access in mobile data networks, operators have to overcome some deployment challenges that these diminutive base stations create, according to a Heavy Reading analyst.

As Light Reading Mobile's recent report, there is a diverse range of public access small cell products designed for use in various places, including indoor venues, outdoor urban hot spots, or rural areas. (See Who's Big in Small Cells?)

But product availability is one thing, deploying it is another matter.

Among the issues operators face in their strategies for rolling out public access small cells, the most challenging are site acquisition, installation and a lack of network planning software tools, according to Heavy Reading Senior Analyst Gabriel Brown.

To do a large-scale small-cell network well, it's imperative that operators place the base stations in the right locations -- that is, where data traffic is heaviest and their network needs a capacity boost.

"Location is critical," said Brown. "Site acquisition and installation -- just getting access and at the right price -- are the biggest challenges."

And after an operator has secured sites -- such as popular indoor venues, the sides of buildings or lampposts on the street -- then their next hurdle is installing power supplies and backhaul links to support the tiny base stations. (See Major Carrier: Small-Cell Backhaul Must Be Cheap and The Small-Cell Backhaul Buzz.)

This is where the variety in types of small cell products listed in Light Reading Mobile's report could be important. Because operators have many different uses in mind for small cells, a range of products has emerged to meet those requirements along with the associated deployment challenges. (See BelAir Small Cell Packs Backhaul Punch and Small-Cell Startup Goes Big On Backhaul .)

"Good product design will alleviate some of the challenges with installation and deployment," said Brown.

But operators also need software tools for network planning and management that can provide analysis that's granular enough for small cells.

"There's a gap in the market there," said Brown. "Operators do not feel they've got the tools they need to plan, design and run small cell networks."

The big wireless equipment vendors – such as Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. and Nokia Networks – are having to extend their macro cellular network planning tools to support small cells, according to Brown. And there is also room in the market for specialist firms like Arieso Ltd. , he noted.

"It's not known who's going to fill the need," said Brown.

— Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Light Reading Mobile

joanengebretson 12/5/2012 | 5:33:17 PM
re: Small Cells Throw Up Big Challenges for Operators

Hello Michelle-

It seems like microwave could play a role in addressing some of the issues you describe about bringing connectivity to small cell locations. Does the Light Reading report offer any insight about that?

Michelle Donegan 12/5/2012 | 5:33:08 PM
re: Small Cells Throw Up Big Challenges for Operators

Hi Joan,

I think you're right that microwave will be important for small-cell backhaul. Several wireless backhaul startups have emerged to address that very challenge. The report doesn't get in to that aspect of small cells, though. Rather, it focuses on the base station equipment that will be used for access.

An interesting development on that note is that some small base stations are starting to integrate backhaul support. 

Flook 12/5/2012 | 5:33:06 PM
re: Small Cells Throw Up Big Challenges for Operators

I assume there will loads of these small cells. That being the case, I wonder if the price tag for installing them outdoors (which is likely to be more expensive than in-door installion) is even worth it.

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