Towercos and cities make progress in enabling US densification

[This article originally appeared in our sister publication, Wireless Watch, which is focused on the wireless industry.]

Small cells took a major part in last week’s Mobile World Congress Americas event in San Francisco, indicating how this technology is finally entering the mainstream of carrier strategies as they look towards densification and 5G. Ironically, of course, the MNOs’ hesitancy to implement small cells at scale may come back to haunt them, if new rivals emerge which can use shared spectrum, small cells and edge computing to support new business models and undermine the mobile operators’ dominance – with the IoT being particularly disruptive.

But whether the deployer is an MNO, a cableco or a neutral host provider, the complexities of sites and backhaul must be addressed more effectively to make small cell roll-out more cost-effective, rapid and repeatable – something the public WiFi community has been more successful in achieving through approaches like standardized equipment classifications, which enable all access points which conform to a certain set of specs to be approved automatically for deployment.

The cellular industry is close to a system of this nature, backed by definitions from the IEC and GSMA, but it still has to grapple with other red tape surrounding access to large numbers of sites, whether these are city lamp-posts, advertising firms’ billboards or private buildings. The US has made considerable progress, with new FCC regulations proposed that would streamline and standardize the process – though this has come in the face of significant opposition from many city authorities and alliances, which believe they are being robbed of their local decision-making power.

The MWC show was a good place for the wireless industry to make its case to regulators and policymakers, especially in the US – but also in Latin America – to ease the path to roll out small cells in their hundreds or even thousands outdoors.

Charles McKee, Sprint’s VP of government affairs for federal and state regulatory, outlined the obstacles his company had encountered and said: “We’re going to have to find new ways to speed this thing along.” Sprint’s CEO, Marcelo Claure, pursued a similar theme, saying: “We’ve got to find a solution and fast if we want to continue being a leader. I think it is so important for the US government … once and for all to get our act together.”

McKee gave some examples of the barriers Sprint has faced in its densification effort, which was much criticized last year for its slow progress, relative to what the operator had promised. He said some cities have asked Sprint to deploy new street lights across the entire city as a condition of using them for small cells; while others have demanded the provision of free city-wide WiFi – harking back to the days of municipal WiFi.

The street lights example highlights one of the key dilemmas associated with city networks. The poles are often well-suited to being small cell and WiFi access point sites, since they are plentiful and have power. Small cell vendors have worked hard to develop form factors which are sufficiently light and unobtrusive to meet city regulations.

Upgrading a street light system to support intelligent lighting – which can save energy by turning lights on and off and required – can be an important first step for a local authority to deploy a smart city policy. Other Internet of Things applications such as smart parking can then be layered on top, and it makes sense, as part of the upgrade process, to incorporate wireless access. But the deployment has to be cost-justified, and some local authorities are arguing – as they did in the muni WIFi days – that the operators should bear the cost, since they will take most of the revenue from access, advertising and so on.

This is especially the case in cities which are interested in supporting smart lighting, parking and other services via low power wide area networks such as NB-IoT, LoRa or Sigfox, which require far fewer sites than a WiFi or standard LTE solution.

The role of the street lamp-post as a mobile site is certainly increasing its value as a city asset, and some authorities see the chance to monetize this, in the same way they do civic rooftops. As well as the operators, companies which manage macrocell sites are getting interested in the new style of sites such as lamp-posts. American Tower, for instance, has announced a partnership with Philips Lighting to design a street light with a small cell fully integrated into it.

This shows American Tower – which has been cautious about extending its cell site business model into small cells – is starting to follow rival Crown Castle into the densification market. Crown Castle has been investing in acquiring fiber providers, most recently Lightower, in order to provide full small cell infrastructure services including backhaul.

One dilemma for the towercos is whether they should also move into installing and managing active equipment – the cells or antennas themselves – to offer a full service on a neutral host basis, which would greatly improve the economics of densification. American Tower’s light poles currently support LTE for two MNOs, but more will be supported in future versions.

Patrice McAree, American Tower’s VP of innovation, said his company was not preparing to invest in fiber and full small cell services like Crown Castle, but “what we want to do is enable the cities to have options”. He said the connected light poles would be offered to cities for free, with perhaps one in 10 or 20 poles needing the small cell capability. The towerco, and Philips, would then derive revenues from operator rentals.

According to Philips Lighting, there are 44m street lights in the US, but only 12% have been converted to energy-efficient LED technology. Market research firm Gartner predicts that street lights will be the primary network infrastructure for 80% of smart city deployments.

One big step forward was announced by California state legislators, who passed a bill that will overrule local authorities and community groups when it comes to small cell sites. The bill—SB 649—would essentially give wireless operators and infrastructure providers the same rights as public utilities to place transmitters in public rights-of-way, and it would cap fees cities could charge for this. However, state governor Jerry Brown still has to sign the bill, which is opposed by more than 200 California cities and counties.

California is significant because of its size and wealth, and as the home of Silicon Valley, but 12 other states have already passed similar legislation to ease small cell deployments, while the FCC hopes to make its federal proposals into law.

The momentum is growing here, and operators in other parts of the world, especially Europe, will hope that it spreads beyond the US, providing blueprints for other governments, regulators and cities.

Lobbying for better site and deployment processes has been a central initiative of the Small Cell Forum, on its quest to accelerate uptake of the technology. It recently bolstered its own efforts with a partnership with the US-based Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA). The two organizations have signed a memorandum of understanding to develop technical, commercial and regulatory solutions to small cell deployments. In particular, they aim to simplify city deployment regulations and to encourage new models of enterprise deployment, including neutral host.

One of the concrete results will be a smart building blueprint, to help the real estate industry build connectivity directly into homes in a more standardized, cost-effective manner.

David Orloff, Chair of SCF, said: “Every enterprise and community needs to be ‘smart’ to provide the best services and take advantage of the Internet of Things and other developing technologies. But this presents complex challenges which no one organization can fully address. TIA and SCF share many of the same goals and we expect this alliance to lead to significant results, especially in advancing our drive towards 5G.”

Brenda Boehm, the TIA’s chief strategy officer, added: “Industry collaboration is clearly needed to realise the full potential of smart communities, whether they take the form of buildings, campuses or entire cities. There are enormous opportunities to drive efficiencies, improve operational effectiveness, deliver faster and safer transportation, and more.”

Such initiatives will become increasingly necessary as cell numbers rise into hundreds or thousands – even millions on a global basis, says Brian Hendricks, head of policy and government regulation at Nokia. “We really need to have the land use policies that will allow us to deploy hundreds of thousands of small cells all over the country,” he said at MWC Americas.

He added that, based on one estimate, a US MNO could pay up to $10bn in total regulatory fees in order to deploy small cells on a nationwide basis (not including deployment costs such as labor).

Don Stockdale, head of the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, pledged at the conference: “We will need to find a way to modernize and streamline this process … Local governments do have a very important role.”