How do you solve a problem like small cell technology?

by Matt Klassen on May 25, 2016

small cellIn an effort to increase the coverage and density of mobile networks in preparation for forthcoming 5G wireless technology, wireless carriers have long seen small cell sites as the most cost effective and efficient way to go about improving and expanding their networks. But it seems that small cell technology isn’t quite the saviour of our wireless future we were all promised, as deploying the technology across urban America has proved to be more complex, costly, and time-consuming than anyone expected.

To that end, Sprint has been among the most vocal advocates for small cell tech, promising last summer that 70,000 units would be installed across the nation within two years. At almost the half way point of that goal and Mobilitie, the company contracted to manage site acquisition and unit deployment for Sprint, has admitted that fewer than 2,000 have been deployed to date. Add to that the fact that AT&T’s initial fervour regarding small cell tech has all but disappeared, and it would seem the viability of small cell tech is certainly in question.

But despite these challenges and the unclear path forward towards developing true 5G technologies, carriers, by and large, remain committed to small cell development, hoping to install, establish, and “industrialize” small cell networks before the advent of the next generation of wireless networks…the only thing they can’t agree on is the best way to do it.

Along with Sprint, Verizon stands as one of the industry’s chief small cell advocates, but as company CFO Fran Shammo explains, the problem is now that deploying the technology is extremely time-consuming.

“It is about a 24-month period of time by the time you get a location, you negotiate with the landlord, you get the fibre to that location, because every single one of our small cells has fibre backhaul to a macro cell,” Shammo said

Simply put, when each small cell requires a fibre connection to the network in order to achieve the desired network density and deliver next gen network speeds, creating that infrastructure takes an inordinate amount of time, and with that, significant capital investment as well.

But even Shammo’s explanation of Verizon’s time-consuming small cell strategy speaks to a larger issue with deployment, what’s the best way to do it? As Shammo noted, Verizon connects each small cell site to the larger network through a fibre connection, but by contrast, Sprint sees creating that sort of fibre infrastructure as cost-prohibitive, so instead its plan is to establish a fibre-connected hub that all surrounding small cells connect to wirelessly.

Now it’s no surprise to hear that T-Mobile, who is now starting to entertain the notion of small cell deployment, takes significant issue with Sprint’s strategy, indicating that the results will, once again, leave Sprint’s customers disappointed with the company’s lacklustre network.

“I’ve had a pretty good career not following what Sprint does,” said Dave Mayo, T-Mobile US’ SVP for technology strategy, finance and development, “It’s not that there’s anything wrong with what they’re doing,” he added. “That’s not to say there aren’t applications for microwave, but by and large in the metropolitan areas our first choice is fibre.”

Despite its significant drawbacks, with most carriers still on board with small cell technology we’re starting to see two distinct deployment philosophies emerge: Do it quick, or do it right. Unfortunately for Sprint it has chosen for former, but given that it is still light years away from achieving its goal of deploying 70,000 small cell units by next summer, we may be seeing the start of another WiMax fiasco, where Sprint pours resources into blazing its own trail to nowhere.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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