As the wireless industry continues to prepare for the future deluge of data traffic in an era of smartphones and video, the subject of small cells has been coming up frequently as an important potential piece of the puzzle. But beyond the fact that they’re cells and they’re small, most of the talk about them is quite general. With us today to shed a little more light on the subject is Doug Wiest, EVP of Wireless at EdgeConneX. EdgeConneX today announced a new small cell deployment contract in Virginia, following a similar deal up in Vermont last month.
TR: Why use small cells?
DW: With the surge in cellular usage globally, consumers now demand, and in the case of business professionals, need and must have, a more consistent quality experience on their mobile device. Small cells provide a solution to make the wireless experience less frustrating for consumers. Many of the problematic spots in a typical wireless network can be significantly improved with the use of small cells. The result is fewer dropped calls, stronger signals, faster download times and clearer reception.
TR: Why are small cells taking off now?
DW: It spawned from an exploding trend in usage of smartphones and the massive associated data combined with a demand by consumers to have ‘always on’ capabilities. Early mobile users tolerated spotty network reception and frankly they didn’t use a phone the way it’s being used today – to send photos, download music, send and receive email, view and upload video and access social networking sites. The result of these events has created an urgency to add ‘quality’ of cellular service into the product portfolio as a baseline feature and a benefit.
TR: When does it make the most sense to use them in a cellular operator’s network?
DW: Small cells can be placed almost anywhere in a wireless network. However, they are most advantageous in dense urban and suburban settings where pockets of poor coverage exist or additional capacity is required to off-load a larger macro cell site or a cellular base station (tower) which has become congested with the amount of bandwidth being requested. Small cells can also be very effective in improving in-building coverage, especially when the building rises above the typical coverage of a macro cell site or if the building materials reflect or absorb existing RF coverage inhibiting a good signal. A typical small cell site can service a rural location up to roughly two km and urban (and in-building) locations up to approximately ten meters delivering strong and reliable signals through building walls, harden infrastructure and rough or dense terrain. Small cells are also often used in areas with difficult zoning and unfriendly tower locations – think of areas where local regulatory groups or home owner associations do not want the presence of a tower looming over their community.
TR: Small cells are such a hot topic right now, why is it that so few providers understand how to effectively deploy it?
DW: It’s not that they don’t know how to deploy it, it’s that they lack the resources to do it and the knowledge of how to cost effectively combine several technologies to produce the right end result – which is a combination of quality and palatable price point for the consumer. This is actually a normal outcome within the networking community, wireless or wireline. There are those with expertise in running and marketing networks and those that possess the expertise of building and deploying networks.
TR: Who are your customers and how do they find you today?
DW: Our customers include local municipalities, cellular operators, ILECs, CLECs and real estate developers. The decision maker varies widely, but usually combines someone in the role of planning and designing the network along with a person on the financial side determining the cost/reward part of the equation. On the financial side, it’s interesting to note that small cell offers new more localized views of cellular usage and trends which many believe is a future monetization event that does not exist today. The closer you can pinpoint a consumers real-time location introduces new and more relevant marketing campaigns that local businesses can take advantage of.
TR: As I understand it, small cells come in various sizes, e.g. femtocells, picocells, metrocells and microcells. Which does EdgeConneX deploy and support for its customers?
DW: We actually use most technologies and devices available on the market today depending on the project we are working on. Ultimately, the way in which we design and deploy the combination of these devices is our proprietary knowledge gathered over years of studying the problem.
TR: What challenges do networks face with the deployment of small cells?
DW: There are several challenges associated with small cell deployment. One of them is cost or, said another way, the acceptance of the cost (capex) associated with the need to further strengthen a cellular operators reach. In the long-term, the cost should not be an issue – the need is here and it isn’t going anywhere. Small cells are just that – small. As a result, the cost to implement small cells is significantly different than a typical cell site deployment. This is true not only for the site acquisition portion, but also for the construction and real estate portions of the deployment. Setting proper expectations is critical in these areas. Where small cell is applicable, it is much more cost effective than macrocells and towers although the actual deployment, may in fact, be much more complex with small cell.
Another challenge is finding ways to blend the small cell installation into the environment. Even though they are very small compared to a regular cell site, they are not invisible. In the case of our Vermont deployment we were able to use local pole infrastructure and the idea of a small cell device on the pole was not seen as an issue. However, in our Virginia multi-purpose Class A building campus deployment the small cells needed to be aesthetically integrated in a way that did not detract from the real estate developer’s original concept for the complex’s look and ‘curb’ appeal.
A third challenge is providing backhaul. Without an expandable source of interconnection to the cloud, the small cell obviously won’t work well. Typical backhaul strategies involve a combination of fiber, microwave and cellular infrastructure making it difficult for a cellular service provider to put all of these components together – not to mention the effort involved in negotiating with building owners, local municipalities and the building tenants themselves.
As you can see, a third party expert brings a lot to the table in terms of how it can provide this for a cellular operator and the result is usually a faster and more cost-effective deployment.
TR: How do you overcome these challenges?
DW: Overcoming cost will ultimately change based on consumer demand for more extensive quality coverage. A different mindset is necessary for cellular operators and highlighting the benefits of improved wireless signal will be an important component for successful deployments. In the past six months we’ve seen the demand of higher quality and consistent coverage strength act as a positive catalyst toward removing the cost barrier and we expect that this trend will continue strongly. Data and mobile usage certainly isn’t slowing down, so it’s pretty important for the cellular operators to keep up to maintain their market share. It’s interesting to watch their commercials on TV actually, the main focus is ‘who has the best network and coverage’ – well that means the ‘consumer’ is saying this is a BIG issue and it means the cellular operator needs to react with more than just marketing. Small cell is an investment in future marketshare which every provider will need to make at some point. The early adopters will be the biggest winners.
Finally, working with landlords and fiber and microwave providers in finding creative ways to supply the necessary backhaul requirements is very important. Techniques such as non-line microwave, line of sight microwave, optimal aggregation locations, use of effective routers and multiplexers and micro trenching will need to continue evolving to serve this market. Our proprietary approach combines the best of each of these technologies to deliver the final solution – in our opinion at least.
TR: How has EdgeConneX emerged in a leadership position in small cell?
DW: Our roots at EdgeConneX stem from the mobile backhaul and cellular operator business. This has progressed overtime to include Edge Data Centers and Office building access. Prior to EdgeConneX I spent several years at American Tower as COO and as CEO of Lightower where we were the first to deploy a neutrally hosted DAS based network. The knowledge I gained through my experience with DAS is tremendously helpful in how we currently think about small cell and it’s impact for the market. Our early efforts at EdgeConneX allowed us to put a portfolio together of 65,000 towers, the largest in the country, and working with the associated companies eventually brought us into the fold to help them solve their more demanding, if not frustrating, problems. Recently, this has been ‘help us figure out small cell and where we need to use it’. When we tackled our first project and successfully implemented it ahead of schedule and under budget the result was more projects and an association to EdgeConneX as being the company you think of first when the words ‘small cell’ are spoken.
TR: How does small cell fit with EdgeConneX’s other strategies?
DW: Our main goal at EdgeConneX is to put content and eyeballs, in this case mobile eyeballs, as close together as possible. This fits perfectly with our Edge Data Center strategy which revolves around proximity of content to wireline and wireless eyeballs. Solving the relationship between content and consumers is probably the most significant issue the industry will face over the next several years. As we grow out our wireless business we’ll begin to use the footprint to push content closer to the edge of the wireless networks. The two go hand in hand with each other and both solve the same issue – users don’t want to be reminded of how they are getting data – they just want it faster and cheaper. Additionally, network operators know that consumers will be using varying types of connectivity and understand that, in all cases, placing content closer to the consumer is ultimately a more cost-effective, and less complex, solution for them.
TR: As a relatively small company, how do you address the needs of cellular operators with national scale?
DW: Our long history in the cellular industry has led to the development of a nationwide group of trusted partners which we use to balance timely deployment with consistent quality. This network of partners enables us to serve any region in the U.S. effectively and quickly. We are currently working on a national deployment and have thus far been below budget and ahead of schedule.
TR: In 5 years, what do you think small cell will mean to the industry?
DW: That’s a tough question to answer with technology changing at such a rapid pace and the unknowns associated with the impact of data and mobile use growing at rates which are barely measurable because they are so large. In general, I would say that small cell technology is going to play a tremendous role in the user’s experience with cellular devices and create even more appeal for the adoption of these devices. Lastly, small cell is viewed as an integral part of the future planning and designing of LTE networks making small cell feel like something that will be with us for quite some time.
TR: Thank you for talking with Telecom Ramblings!
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