RCR Wireless – Small cell volume is finally here.  If there was a tipping point it was 2018.  Wide-scale deployments in “NFL cities” started to overtake the sporadic pilots that had been hailed as the small cell successes to-date.  The technology is sound, the deployment approaches proven, and the economics finally work. We are at the beginning of the small cells ramp that 5G will eventually take mainstream.

Many traditional macro tower vendors that dominated the 3G and 4G deployment landscape have failed to make significant headway in the small cells space.  Before it was a volume business, those sporadic small cells deployments were often carried out by newer entrants, vendors historically focused on utility work, or smaller GCs that gained a foothold in the node deployment space early on.  It bought them experience and – importantly – track records with carriers and infrastructure companies. Some traditional service providers are now trying to overcome these barriers to entry; welcoming any opportunity to learn and gain credibility through smaller trials of their small cell deployment capability.

Having observed the last three to four years of this nascent industry, we believe there are five keys to successful small cells deployment, and those GCs and carriers that follow these will be best positioned for small cells and 5G deployment.

Delivery over engineering perfection

In the macro tower world, engineering perfection leads to multiple architectural changes, endless debates over specific antenna types, etc.  Small cells need to be more of a volume and commodity game, with more of a production mindset, even for simple elements such as a pole set. Yes, there is some uniqueness to every node build, but concentrating on the commonality and accommodating the unique is the way to deliver volume with quality.  Turning every build into a mini science project just won’t do.

The underlay role that small cells play in the network should assist this approach: less bespoke hardware, less customized architectures, and somewhat greater deployment flexibility; more modular builds and greater standardization on the electronics.  In the volume game ‘very good’ beats ‘perfect’ every time when you’re trying to deliver better service to customers.

Focus on minimizing impact

For small cells deployment that specifically means the visual impact of the solution itself, and the implementation impact on the public and on the jurisdictions and utilities.

They will be – obviously – small structures, but much more numerous than their macro parents.  By their very definition they will exist close to people, easily in eyesight at street level where people work and play.  Ironically, the trend for people to stare down at their smart phones as they walk may help the cause. Seriously though, small cells threaten a different level of visual disruption to our daily lives and the streetscapes of our nation.

The first time the author saw a small cell it was in downtown Cleveland, and I didn’t even know I’d seen one until I casually read a plaque on the ground-mounted shroud.  It was clean and unobtrusive; in fact, it could have been a random electrical box or similar piece of street furniture that is ubiquitous in the modern city had it not been for the elaborate decoration by a local artist.  It was actually pleasant to look at.  The importance of the aesthetic only increases as hundreds of small cells in a city eventually become thousands.   Multiple implementations on a single pole, for example, will require extreme care in design.

The architectural aesthetics of these nodes – and how the deployers represent them in 2D or 3D renditions for jurisdictional approval – are critical to getting the go-ahead to install.  On the construction side this places significant effort on mounting solutions, shroud placement, and precise restoration.

Get more fiber in your diet

Traditional macro towers typically have one or more fiber connectivity options, as a result of the 4G push.  Small cells – unless collocated – require some element of fiber construction (underground or aerial), and that can be a trench to a zero manhole or a new fiber lateral off of a backbone.  Much existing fiber was originally laid without the expectations of the capacity requirements of small cells, 5G, and modern enterprise broadband, so either new innerduct, or even entirely new conduit is required.  Along with entitlements, fiber can be one of the long poles in the small cells installation process.

GCs entering the small cells and 5G space will need to have strong fiber capabilities – or at a minimum – strong fiber partnerships – to make a strong headway in this deployment environment.

Keep it civil

Utility poles are ubiquitous in the U.S., where most power distribution is aerial, however those utility poles generally weren’t sized and specified with the expectation of suture small cells deployment.  As a result, make ready might dictate that the existing pole is either replaced, or that a new pole needs to be set adjacent to an existing pole that is considered to be fully loaded. Civil construction is a vital capability in this space.  A municipal street light might be in the preferred location, but jurisdictions will sometimes require those to be swapped out to newer models with specific architectural standards. The structural integrity might have already been there, however requirements to maintain or enhance the streetscape may necessitate the change.

As mentioned previously, fiber digs also add civil construction complexity, often with strict working hours and road closure or traffic management requirements.  The management for the GC can become even more complex where a joint trench is mandated for certain runs. Also referenced earlier was the importance of surface restoration (i.e. ‘try to make it look like it was before you dug it up’).  It’s critical aspect of completing what is seen to be a quality job in the small cells space. We’ve all driven over bad road restorations or been distracted by poor sidewalk restoration – it sticks out. Restoration isn’t as simple as just slapping down some sod… many municipalities have very specific requirements on backfill, surface materials, and restoration techniques.  More than simply doing the bare minimum it’s about protecting the visuals of the streetscape and creating goodwill with jurisdictions.

Light it up?

In tower LTE deployments, Commissioning and Integration (C&I) is a common service for third parties to perform.  C&I always required a different type of ‘compute’ specialism, and familiarity with the interfaces used by each specific router and eNobeB manufacturer.  It’s different skills, different teams, and requires troubleshooting mindset.

The trend in small cells is more toward the carriers performing the simpler C&I required for small cells, with the GC tending to be in more of a troubleshooting and support role.  It’s important to understand the depth of C&I scope for upcoming builds, because it will affect staffing ratios. If many customers are only calling on the GC for basic turnup and troubleshooting support, then construction crew skills may be all that are required to complete those jobs.  We’ll all see how this trends over time as volumes increase, but it’s an important aspect for GCs to clarify early on in the bid process.

So you should sweat the small stuff

Small cells deployments, then, are not an entirely different animal, however the differences matter.  There’s more civil infrastructure and less compute infrastructure. There’s more fiber construction, and less colocation.  Less concentration on routing IP traffic and more focus on routing vehicular traffic. Less cranes and more bucket trucks. A much greater concentration on aesthetics, and a different set of entitlement and scheduling challenges.

We’re entering a volume game, here, with civil and permitting complexity times thousands.  More coordination will be required to maximize the usage of crews, equipment, and permits; and jurisdictional goodwill.  The GCs that truly understand and appreciate the differences and the specific blends of skills required will be more successful in winning work and deploying in the small cells space, especially in these early days where a lack of commoditization is buoying prices for good services vendors.  For GCs, taining for the new blend of skillsets will be the key to ramping crews to meet today’s small cell installation demands, and tomorrow’s 5G challenges. A simple re-branding is not enough.