Small Cells: Tower GCs Must Adapt to Succeed

AGL Media Group – Small cell volume deployment finally became a commercial reality in 2017 and 2018 versus the petri dish of small-scale pilots previously conducted. The market is finally here, and like any nascent market where the technology, deployment and business case challenges have been cracked, a steep ramp in deployments will surely follow.

Early market entrants have proven a model for design, permitting and installation that works, although it has its own inherent challenges, just like the tower business.

Somewhat surprisingly, many vendors in the traditional tower deployment industry have failed to gain much traction in small cell deployment, with a large chunk of the work going to either newer entrants, vendors historically focused on utility work or smaller general contractors (GC) that gained a foothold in the node deployment space early on. Many traditional service providers are still looking for a chance to get their first nodes.

So, isn’t it just the same set of competencies, but on a smaller scale? That would be a drastic oversimplification of small cell deployments. The following information outlines some of the major differences that major general contractors and carriers will need to understand as small cell (including 5G) deployments explode over the next few years.

Engineering Purity

Mobile network operators often spent many billions of dollars deploying new, often customized network architecture at tower sites to create reborn networks. These were big-dollar bets. At the time, the new architecture had the potential to pole-vault a carrier into first place or ham-string it for the following five years with an uncompetitive network. The stakes were high, and the buy-ins were large, with all of the architectural purity that went along with these rebirths.

Although small cell deployments have their own architectural struggles, there seems to be more of a practical focus on fast deployment versus academic architectural perfection. Maybe part of it is the underlying role that small cells play in the network. Maybe the smaller and more modular deployment approach makes it easier to accept “very good” over “perfect” results. Either way, the approach taken for small cell deployments initially is leading to the use of less bespoke hardware, fewer customized architectures and somewhat greater deployment flexibility.

Visual Effect Versus Performance

Yes, small cells are small. But they are more numerous, more common in population centers and gathering places and closer to eye-level. Additionally, they threaten to cause a different level of disruption to the cityscape than the existing and culturally embedded tower base. Remember how contentious just hanging some new equipment on an existing macro tower can sometimes be?

The first time I saw a small cell it was in downtown Cleveland and I didn’t even know I had seen one until I casually read a plaque on the ground-mounted shroud. It was so it unobtrusive, it could have been a random electrical box or similar piece of street furniture that is ubiquitous in a modern city. Also, it had been decorated by a local artist and was actually pleasant to look at. The importance of the visuals 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. And, if you never receive that greenlight to install, the performance doesn’t matter. Although this is also true for tower installations (with the exception of stealth sites), the actual visuals of the equipment generally matter less.

Fiber Construction

Since the rollout of 4G wireless communications technology, traditional towers typically have had at least one fiber connectivity option. For the initial buildout of small cells, however, fiber construction is typically a requirement, whether that is a short dig from a zero manhole or the buildout of a new lateral for a small group of nodes. Sometimes, existing fiber was originally laid without the expectations of the capacity requirements of small cells, so either a new innerduct or an entirely new conduit is required. Along with entitlements, fiber can be one of the long poles in the buildout of small cells. Additionally, this creates coordination requirements between node and fiber builds.

Accelerate Deployments

Although tower deployments mostly have to occur within the structure of traditional construction rules, e.g., zoning laws for small cell deployment that enables legislation exists at the federal level, and there is continuous legislative focus on cleaning up the approval process The spirit and complexity of adoption, however, differs significantly by state and by local jurisdiction, so in practice it can be more complex than headlines might make it appear.

At the local level, there are some very real considerations. For example, in the utility space, make-ready requirements, utility safety and the scheduling of power-downs are extremely important. At the same time, utilities are simply not staffed to handle the volume or pace of the requests coming in. It’s a shock to the system.

Similarly, local jurisdictions have architectural and noise pollution concerns. They also have a requirement to keep traffic flowing by carefully coordinating street closures for node and fiber construction. A major concern of theirs is knowing today’s ask, but not knowing the full ask — there is no crystal ball. How many requests will actually come through for a single city in the next five years? What percentage of collocation will there be? Although macro volumes involved handfuls of builds in a single town, the small cell equivalent could amount to thousands of implementations. There are valid questions.

On the other side, staffing for the handling of jurisdictional applications and permits is not always adequate; approval processes are still in their early days and are not always bedded in; and negotiations of how to adequately compensate the jurisdiction can lead to elongated negotiations. Those submitting designs for approval must be diplomats, educators and negotiators when it comes to small cell deployments — more so than in the traditional tower approach.

Civil Construction Element

Although greenfield macro tower construction involved extremely complex civil construction, the tower portfolio in the United States is, for the most part, built out. Instead of building a new tower, a new deployment or construction project often involves less work, such as hanging new equipment on a tower as a new tenant or, more often, replacing equipment on an existing radiation center with maybe some mount swaps. Even though some site modifications could require ground work for additional cabinets or other expansion, the vast majority of the work is antenna and line, and commissioning and integration, i.e., above ground or virtual.

For the initial buildout of small cells, however, poles often have to be set for the first time, adding a greater civil construction element to the projects. Even in an example with an existing utility pole, make-ready requirements may dictate that the existing pole must be replaced or that a new pole must be placed adjacent to an existing pole that is considered to be fully loaded. Furthermore, municipal street lights may be the preferred location, but jurisdictions will sometimes require those to be replaced to meet specific architectural standards to blend in with — or even improve — the streetscape.

Fiber digs add to the civil construction complexity with their strict working hours and road closure or traffic management requirements. This can become even more complex where a joint trench is mandated.

Electrical Safety Requirements

Many node installations on existing poles can be performed in the communications space on the pole. However, architectural requirements such as pole top antennas may drive a portion of work out of the communications space and above the power space. When antennas must be installed either between or above high-voltage lines, the utility typically requires the use of linesmen from vendors certified and approved by that utility. This may result in multiple vendors addressing different parts of the installation, with the added scheduling complexity that goes along with that.

Maybe the nearest parallel for macro construction is installation work on high-voltage electrical towers, specific crews mandated on some water towers or sprat crews for some rooftop installations. However, those types of macro installation are much less common and make up a fraction of the typical tower deployment, in essence because carriers historically avoided transmission tower macro sites for exactly these reasons.

Multiple Installation Approaches

Tower sites have typically followed a similar installation approach: a standalone tower (or rooftop installation) with underground power and data. The availability of mains power is a given, and power requirements have actually increased through the generations.

Although pole-mounted small cells are by far the most common type, strand-mounted small cells are becoming more common. A strand-mount small cell often uses a quicker installation procedure than a pole-mounted node, but it requires crews trained in that specific installation architecture. Strand-mount popularity is further driven by the emergence of DC line power solutions for powering smaller nodes with aerial power. This innovative solution, combined with aerial fiber, reduces the need for underground civil construction, but it requires both engineering teams and construction crews with a specific understanding of these architectures, which include DC downconverters and buck-boost converters.

Commissioning, Integration

In tower LTE deployments, the main components of deployment services can often be categorized as site acquisition (or AZP), construction, and commissioning and integration (C&I). C&I always required a different type of computer specialist familiar with the interfaces used by each specific router and eNobeB manufacturer.

In practice, similar steps exist in the deployment of small cells nodes. However, the trend is more toward the carriers performing the simpler C&I required for small cells. The general contractor tends to fill more of a troubleshooting and support role. This again changes the blend of crew types, and the specific skills and training required to perform the deployments from the general contractor perspective.


Small cells deployments are similar — yet different — to tower deployments. They require more civil infrastructure and less compute infrastructure. They need more fiber construction and less collocation. There is less concentration on routing IP traffic and more focus on routing vehicular traffic. Small cell deployments use fewer cranes and more bucket trucks. They bring a much greater concentration on aesthetics and a different set of entitlement and scheduling challenges.

The volume of work also differs between small cells and towers. Small cell crews potentially construct a node per day, versus a smaller number of three- or four-day macro builds. That small cell construction volume is also highly skewed to new builds versus collocation in these early days, further emphasizing the fiber and civil construction aspects of the builds. Because revenue is only produced for the owners when node builds and fiber builds intersect, the project management is often more involved. This complexity increases when building takes place in a street environment with traffic, pedestrians, existing working traffic lights and ramps installed for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

So, small cell deployment is different and it has its own build complexities. In some ways, node construction is a nascent industry with its own specific blend of skillsets. Every node install differs in complexity, and so the risk cost for the variances really sits on the buyer side for now, with limited risk for variance sitting with the vendors. The lack of commoditization of small cells services results in more complex, a la carte pricing from which the tower construction world evolved long ago.

The general contractors who truly understand and appreciate the differences and the specific blends of skills required will be more successful in winning work and making deployments in the small cell business, especially in these early days where a lack of commoditization is buoying prices for good services vendors. For general contractors, training 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 rebranding is not enough.