Outlook 2014: the big case for small-cells

Phil Marshall/Tolaga Research
19 Dec 2013

As mobile broadband demand increases, the business-case justification for small-cell technology is compelling. This is particularly the case in markets where data traffic is overwhelming the capabilities of traditional network designs, and challenging the return-on-invested-capital that operators can achieve.

Although outdoor small-cells have been deployed for several decades under the guise of micro-cells, technology vendors have made tremendous progress in cost-optimizing them with integrated platforms and form-factors that ease installation and integration requirements. These efforts have benefited from the femtocell market, the proliferation of Wi-Fi technology for mobile traffic offload and the innovation solutions by companies like AirHop, Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco, Ericsson, Mindspeed, NSN, Silku and SpiderCloud. While cost optimization will remain a key focus for small cells, 2014 will herald new strategies for enabling large-scale small-cell deployments, particularly in four areas.

Network planning: The ultimate goal is for network planning to become autonomous, enabling multitudes of low-cost network nodes to adapt to network demands and provide coordinated measurements and predictions to inform network optimization, planning and inventory requirements. However, for the foreseeable future, centralized planning platforms offered by companies like Aircom, Forsk, and Mentum will be needed.

In addition, the planning of outdoor small cells contrasts macro-cell planning in many ways, including the need for higher resolution geographical information system data, radio propagation modeling solutions that anticipate near-far difficulties created between small and macro cells, and solutions that optimize proximity of cell sites relative to utility and transmission resources.

Site acquisition: In the past macro-cell site acquisition has involved complicated site identification, landlord negotiations and zoning approvals. For example, in mature markets like the US, the acquisition of new macro cells typically costs between $40,000 and $50,000. More recently, infrastructure outsourcing initiatives and site overlays have resulted in master lease agreements and simplified site acquisition and lease modification activities, typically costing between $5,000 and $10,000.

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