Small Cell Deployment Prep and Background

For the record I have been involved in small cells for the last 2 years, and it has been tough. The numbers didn’t ramp up like we thought they would. However, it looks like 2016 may change all of that. Let me explain.

It appears that the carriers have driven the deployment pricing down to a reasonable price. Originally all the models were based on a normal cell site. Let me put that into perspective. The carriers were going to be charged for site acquisition and installation and backhaul in the neighborhood of $50,000 to install a $5,000 unit. Does that make sense to you? The fact it may only serve 100 people or so at any given time also hurt the model. That is one of the problems they had to overcome. The payback in 3G just didn’t make sense, but now with LTE (4G) coming things are changing. Also, 5G will be higher frequencies making coverage circles even smaller. Plan ahead!

This is probably why AT&T Wireless pulled back on their outdoor small cell deployments, the economics and payback didn’t make sense, but ask them for the real reason. They still deploy indoor small cells from what I see.


Now that we have 4G, LTE, it is making more sense to make sure that the carrier can supply broadband, especially the carrier’s broadband to use up all of that data each month. Wi-Fi is great for coverage at home but in the public it can be hit or miss or sometimes unreliable or not free! So the small cell is a great way to extend coverage as long as the economics make sense. Maybe even collocate it with Wi-Fi, although if they share the backhaul that doesn’t make a lot of sense, so backhaul planning is essential. Give people the coverage they want and need and also provide decent bandwidth for downloads! Stay connected! Now this could be indoors or outdoors, the name of the game here is to keep the customer connected as much as possible.

With LTE-U and LAA, Wi-Fi will become an important part of the Het-Net system and will be key to providing bandwidth. So make sure that they do not share backhaul! Otherwise they will have a common bottleneck.

Now the deployment costs are starting to make sense and the price of the small cell is dropping too, well under the original $5K that it started at. Most of them will be under $2,500 each and indoor units will be way cheaper. Femto cells are already dropping under $500 per unit.

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So what has changed that the deployment costs have dropped? Education and planning! Now that all teams are beginning to understand that small cell coverage should be cost-effective, the site acquisition costs have dropped considerable and the installation charges are reasonable. Backhaul, still an issue in the USA, but even that is being resolve. You have more options like DOCSIS, wireless, E band, 60GHz, sub 6GHz, and UE Relays to be used. Suddenly there are alternatives to fiber and copper.

With DOCSIS connections cable companies could really play a big part in backhaul if they want to. Some cable companies, like COX, are already doing testing with some of the OEMs and carriers. This is a great start to helping a mass deployment.

Companies like Crown Castle have also figured it out by offering everything at some of their small cell assets, like power and fiber already at the pole along with an existing box to avoid zoning issues. They really put a lot of thought into it. I think they understand 2 things, speed to market and to have a complete solution. They, along with many other asset providers, are taking this very seriously. They are providing a one stop shop for the small cell deployment. They also understand you can’t go into site acquisition for small cells with the Macro mentality.

So people ask me questions all the time about small cell deployments. They ask where they should start. I tell them to learn what is out there and what they want to deploy. The OEMs train people to properly install their equipment, that is a great place to start. Research what you can about the deployments because it may not be what you expect. For indoor deployments you need ladders and indoor tools and cabling tools. You may need to terminate fiber or CAT5 or CAT6. Make sure you’re teams are qualified to do what is needed. Also, make sure you understand the grounding requirements. Learn what PoE means, (Power over Ethernet). Make sure you know what permissions you need from the landlord and if any permitting is required.It’s a good idea to know the local zoning laws.

If you are deploying indoor systems, make sure the small cell is PoE because if it’s not then you need to run outlets wherever you mount the cell or you need to run extension cords or mount near outlets. Any way you look at it, costs go up without PoE! Also, make sure the router you’re running to has PoE ports available and make sure that they match up to the power required by the small cell. There are high power units and low power units, and the router needs to be able to handle the power rating.  Don’t assume the small cell (or the connecting switch) has PoE or you may look very stupid running extension cords at the last-minute.

If you bid the job, are you just installing or are you also required to help commission and test? This could add another 30 to 60 minutes to each visit. If you have 2 guys installing and you didn’t add in the extra 60 minutes, then you are going to lose 2 man hours on every small cell along with the schedule being impacted because you’re losing an hour at every installation. It adds up! Especially in lost revenue and lost time on the schedule. Read and understand your SOW.

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What about logistics? Where are you getting the hardware? Where will it be shipped? Do you have to pick it up or will it be shipped to your shop? Did you look over the drawings? Is there any RF Design information you need to be aware of? Do you need a device dedicated to test the cell once it is installed? Who did the site survey? Do you have documentation from the survey?

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Make a kit of potential mounting hardware you may need. It is pretty common and keep the kit stocked to the farthest you have to run is your truck or van because there may or may not be a Home Depot or Lowes nearby.

Review the survey and verify the questions that you need to answer. If you have more questions reach out to me, I am here to help. I do consulting for people that feel they need help. Let me know your thoughts. I am also writing some papers and training on the different aspects of deployment.

 Interested? Let me know about it. I will add you to my email list for more information.

Be smart, be safe, and pay attention!

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