Wireless Watch has often tracked the setbacks in mobile operators’ push towards denser networks based on more commoditized small cells. Many technology breakthroughs have been made, including more discreet form factors for city use and open architectures, such as Telecom Infra Project’s OpenCellular, to drive down cost and promote interoperability. However, for every move forward in the platform and supplier ecosystem, there seems to be a step back in terms of the ability for operators to access sites cost-effectively and to deploy equipment quickly and cheaply.
But progress is being made on small cell products and processes that will address some of the qualms that cities, road and rail operators, and enterprises may have about small cells. Verizon and Deutsche Telekom are the latest to demonstrate some of these breakthroughs, aiming to accelerate roll-out of 4G and future 5G small cells to support very dense zones of cellular capacity in city centers, stadiums and other high traffic environments, where even the macro cell upgrades like Massive MIMO are stretched to deliver very high speeds and QoS to every user.
Verizon is deploying new ‘smart poles’ in Denver, following a deal with Colarado-based
Comptek Technologies. They have developed a product which falls in the growing category of street furniture which fully incorporate a small cell and its power and backhaul requirement. The small cell may consist of a stripped-down radio/antenna sharing a remote baseband resource, or an all-in-one cell, but either way it is virtually invisible to people on the street.
This is designed to address objections to city networks on aesthetic grounds, as well as encourage municipalities to upgrade their poles in order to achieve several other benefits, including:
- To support broadband and street lighting or traffic lights from the same infrastructure and power source;
- To reduce the TCO of both sets of services using the most modern cellular and LED technologies;
- To derive new revenues from renting the pole space to one or more operators (the cell could be multi-operator, or different MNOs could deploy cells in different poles);
- To support new public services or revenues, by incorporating edge computing resource into the pole too, and using the connectivity and processing power to enable city applications like smart lighting.
The City of Denver has approved the design of the Comptek City Poles and Verizon is now deploying them both for 4G and 5G cells. The carrier has a national agreement with the Colorado firm and they are working on deployments in other cities including Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati, Ohio; Anaheim, San Diego and Los Angeles, California; as well as Salt Lake City, Utah. In the Denver/Front Range area, the company has about 350 poles under contract, with contracts to build about 1,000 across the US by the end of this year.
All four US MNOs are accelerating their progress on urban small cells, with Sprint being particularly active via its agreement with Airspan to densify the 2.5 GHz band. It is particularly urgent for Verizon and AT&T to find ways to ease the deployment of large numbers of low cost base stations, because they are starting their 5G roll-outs in millimeter wave spectrum, in 28 GHz and 39 GHz, which have very challenging propagation qualities, especially for mobile networks and base stations close to the ground (for their first wave of deployments, for fixed wireless access, the power limits are more generous and higher range can be achieved).
The US operators have been the biggest advocates of densification in 4G and 5G, along with those in China, Japan and South Korea – countries with large dense cities coupled with high mobile broadband usage and high QoS expectations. But the difficulty and cost of acquiring sufficiently large numbers of city sites, and completing all the negotiations and paperwork, have been significant brakes on roll-out, and while the FCC has sought to drive through a universal set of rules and templates to simplify the process, it has met considerable opposition from states and cities, which want to preserve their independence in setting their own guidelines and site prices (see inset).
The barriers to better city approval processes, and to neutral host models, have held back densification and continue to create doubts about the business case. Wall Street analysts at MoffettNathanson wrote in a recent investor report: “Our high level conclusion is that while small cells are growing like weeds, expectations for their long term return potential should probably be tempered” because of these barriers.
Early in its large-scale densification program, in 2017, Sprint’s VP of government affairs for federal and state regulatory, Charles McKee, issued a call to arms, saying: “We’re going to have to find new ways to speed this thing along.” He gave some examples of the barriers Sprint has faced in its densification effort, which has been much criticized 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; and also to work with infrastructure manufacturers on smart poles, which have been deployed in some large cities already, notably in China. In the USA, American Tower has announced a partnership with Philips Lighting to design a street light with a small cell fully integrated into it.
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 IoT 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.
New models are essential on the deployment side, not just the city’s. Comptek itself points to some of the changes which may accelerate small cell roll-out by encouraging shared and neutral host infrastructure, so that each MNO does not have to install every cell itself, putting a great strain on available sites.
Neutral hosts have a key role to play in reducing the cost and effort of deployment. Total cost of ownership of a small cell needs to be under one-tenth that of a macro to make most MNOs take an interest, and much of the effort to achieve that has focused on more streamlined, standardized processes for roll-out – from light-touch approvals to common frameworks for site tenancy and pricing. But there also needs to be changes in practice on the deployers’ side. Even fast, uniform approvals and installation procedures will not support an attractive business case if each MNO is deploying individual cells, or they are steering clear of enterprise and industrial sites which, for them, may be unprofitable. A multi-operator, shared approach would boost those profits, reduce cost and time to deploy and manage the networks, and enable specialist service providers to live alongside the MNOs.
Crown Castle, which has been the most active of the large tower operators in chasing the neutral host small cell opportunity, believes the business is about to gather major momentum despite remaining site regulatory issues, as the requirement for dense targeted cellular networks becomes more urgent – not just for MNOs’ 5G mobile broadband networks, but industries wanting to use 5G for their own applications, which might be supported by a private network operator or neutral host platform.
The towerco’s CFO Dan Schlanger told the recent Cowen Communications Infrastructure Summit that “this demand cannot only be met with towers … There are only so many [macro] towers you can put into place and it’s really hard to build new ones.”
He continued: “So the way we believe this is going to evolve over time is to continue down the path of more and more small cells. And we think we’re uniquely positioned to take advantage of that opportunity.” He believes Crown Castle’s experience as an infrastructure provider makes it better equipped to deal with the “municipalities and utilities that are making it more difficult to deploy small cells”.
Crown Castle expects to deploy about 10,000 small cells this year, though this falls at the lower end of the company’s earlier guidance of 10,000 to 15,000 small cells, and in some quarters there are no deployments. “Instead of ordering 50 at a time we’re now at thousands, and therefore it’s just going to be more lumpy,” said Schlanger. “You’re not going to get as many thousands awards as you are 50s.”
Crown Castle has estimated historically that it is accounting for 50% of small cell activity in the USA, while the other half is by carriers deploying directly. Rivals like American Tower may get more interested (see separate item), but Schlanger thinks single-operator roll-out will decline. “In the long term, the economics of sharing infrastructure work,” he said. “We believe that over time the ability to deploy more small cells for the same dollars by using a shared infrastructure will prove to be a very attractive option.”
Comptek says it is working with all the major MNOs but often through a third party integrator. One of these is utility Xcel Energy, which has an eight-state footprint in which it helps operators to deploy their small cells on its existing infrastructure. In some cases, Xcel is taking down existing light poles and replacing them with Comptek poles.
The poles are designed in modular sections with a foundation, base cabinet, shroud, upper pole and top antenna section. They can be customized to incorporate various cell configurations, cabling, power supplies and antennas. Comptek also provides electronics and environmental controls and the poles can support single or multiple carriers. For Ericsson’s mmWave 5G cells, the equipment is mounted in a tri-sector format, so that radios and antennas are integrated with each other and mounted at the top of the pole in three panels that face in different directions.
Other companies are innovating in new siting options to make small cells more economic for the city and the MNO, more invisible, and more flexible in the use cases they can support. CommScope, for instance, has several pole-integrated form factors and a cell that can be incorporated into a manhole cover in the pavement. Big vendors like Huawei, as well as manufacturers like Valmont Industries, are also coming up with new site designs.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Deutsche Telekom (DT) is working with the Swiss company Huber+Suhner to develop five small cell antenna designs, called Sencity Urban antennas, for 5G bands from 1.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz. These antennas will first work within the existing 5G network in Germany, and then be upgraded to 5G. The first cities to use them will be Kiel, Lüneburg, Osnabrück, Munich and Mülheim, among others.
Most European operators have not felt the same pressure to densify as their US and east Asian counterparts. They generally have more 4G capacity spectrum which is underused and are looking to leverage that, and to improve coverage using MIMO antennas to upgrade macrocells. However, the key 3.5 GHz 5G band is relatively high and will suit smaller cells – though often with full macro capabilities outdoors, the so-called ‘mini-macro’.
“The new types of Huber+Suhner antenna make it possible to increase quality further with MIMO technology,” said DT in a statement. “Using this technology, several antennas provide higher data throughput – both at the transmitters and in the receiver.” It is looking to add an extra 150Mbps in the targeted cells.
“Developing small cell antennas that support 4G and 5G technology and can be integrated properly into the cityscape despite the limited space was a challenge,” said Claudia Bartholdi, product manager at Huber+Suhner. Like Verizon’s poles, these designs are very compact so they can be installed unobtrusively on existing infrastructure including telephone boxes, bus and streetcar shelters, walls and light poles. There are various types of antennas and housing, depending on the site type, with omnidirectional antennas for market squares, and directional ones for narrow streets.
By the end of 2019, DT expects to have rolled out about 300 5G antennas in more than 100 locations, starting in the cities of Berlin, Bonn, Darmstadt, Hamburg, Leipzig and Munich.
States and cities continue to oppose FCC’s small cell rules:
The FCC has published guidelines aiming to provide standard rules for site access, small cell approvals and deployment processes, but has faced opposition from cities and states which want to keep all the decisions in their own hands. That, however, means operators have to negotiate approvals, leasing deals and so on individually for each city and even each site, which can take two years or more and adds to the cost of deployment.
Two weeks ago, the FCC was dealt a partial blow in one of the lawsuits opposing its rules, when a US court vacated part of the March 2018 FCC infrastructure order that exempted small cells from federal environmental and historic preservation review.
In April, the FCC issued an order limiting cities’ ability to restrict the deployment of 5G small cells. But Mayor Ted Wheeler of Portland, Oregon, spoke for many of his counterparts when he said: “The federal government has made something of a land grab against local infrastructure, like telephone poles, where these wireless nodes will be connected.”
The City of Portland went on to file legal action against the FCC to halt the wireless pre-emption order, which came into effect in January, having been passed into law in September 2018. And Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced the City of Seattle would coordinate with other cities in a lawsuit against the order.
“In coordination with the overwhelming majority of local jurisdictions that oppose this unprecedented federal intrusion by the FCC, we will be appealing this order, challenging the FCC’s authority and its misguided interpretations of federal law,” Durkan wrote.
Much of the opposition from cities has arisen because of what is perceived as an attempt to rob them of self-determination when it comes to leasing their assets. Cities want better mobile broadband, but they also want to be able to set their own terms, conditions and price for lamp-posts, buildings and highway locations; plus they are often in contention with state governments, some of which have tried to force through new, common rules too. So the FCC’s proposals are being opposed by a large number of large and small cities, on the basis that their local autonomy is being overridden by a federal agency.
In summer 2018, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr announced the second set of guidelines which he has spearheaded in this area, following a success six months earlier, when he established the principle that small cells should not be treated in the same way as macrocells, and excluded small cells from many restrictions on historic building or environmental grounds.
Carr has argued that his later proposals create a balance between local priorities and federal 5G goals. One of the four key elements of the FCC proposals is that the new rules will not disturb existing small cell legislation at state level, but will just provide guidance on local reviews.
The other three elements are:
- State governments can charge operators for the costs associated with reviewing small cell deployment, but the FCC’s rules will prohibit ‘ excessive fees’. Carr elaborated: “To encourage cooperation between local governments and wireless providers, the FCC in the order provides specific fee amounts, below which we presume the local governments’ fees are lawful.”
- Local governments will need to conduct approval processes within 60 days for small cells being added to existing structures and 90 days when a provider wants to put up a new small cell site.
- Local governments will be able to review small cell deployments via “reasonable” aesthetic reviews.
Cities which have opposed the rules include San Francisco – despite being a self-declared smart city; Philadelphia, scene of the municipal WiFi battles between operators and local authorities a decade ago; and Chicago; plus some smaller cities like Lakewood, California and Yuma, Arizona.
The filings by the cities generally follow the same format and present the same basic arguments, indicating a level of coordination of their efforts. The main arguments are:
- The FCC’s proposed new collocation shot clock category is too extreme.
- The FCC’s proposed definition of “effective prohibition” is too broad.
- The FCC’s proposed recurring fee structure is an “unreasonable overreach that will harm local policy innovation” while not ensuring “fair and reasonable” compensation for the cities.
“While promoting broadband technology and development remains an essential City initiative, it is critically important for municipalities such as Philadelphia to balance these goals with the ability to regulate and manage the public ROW [right of way],” the city of Philadelphia wrote in its submission to the FCC’s consultation process. “The City’s ability to manage its ROW is essential in order to effectively protect the health, safety and welfare of the City’s over 1.5m residents and 43m annual visitors.”