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In the race to 5G, small cells will deliver a big impact

Despite being available for almost a decade, small cells are now on the cusp of making a big impact. 

The biggest challenge is the insatiable customer demand for network coverage; mobile traffic is growing 60% year-on-year since 2004, except in London where it’s growing 100% year-on-year. And this is even before the plethora of IoT devices or data-intensive gaming and applications hit the market. Coupled with this, consumer expectations of MNOs are high and the market is fiercely competitive.  


One solution – densification of the network by upgrading macrocell sites - has huge cost implications and with average revenue per user due to remain flat over the next several years, many operators can’t justify such an investment just to stand still. In addition, upgrading macro networks will require site provider approvals and even local council planning permission. Alternatively, small cells, which fit under the macro layer on the same spectrum, offer a cost-effective alternative, while providing the coverage and capacity demanded by consumers.


As the leader in macrocell provision for UK MNOs, we understand the challenges operators face in delivering high performing mobile networks to meet customer expectations. That’s why we’ve spent the past eight years investing in the research and development of small cell technology. 

One of the challenges with developing small cells is that they provide very localised coverage, and as a result small cell facilities need to be placed as close to the required coverage as possible. Form factor is therefore a key consideration – laws prevent boxes being placed ad hoc on the sides of buildings, and councils are concerned about street clutter. To overcome this, we’ve designed the smallest NTE possible, taking into consideration the height, weight and power consumption required. We are the only vendor to have designed an NTE that fits into existing street structures, such as lampposts, CCTV columns and phone boxes. 


However, the process for fitting the technology and the charges that are applied by councils can vary across the country, making it a time consuming and laborious task for MNOs to negotiate. We are working alongside many UK councils as part of our open access initiative to ensure access to street furniture is available to everyone at reasonable charge. As part of this initiative we’re offering to hand back our exclusive rights agreement in many cities to ensure small cell technology can be deployed, regardless of the vendor.


Another area where BT is leading small cell innovation is within the technology itself. All of our outdoor small cell products are 5G ready and come with phase synchronisation included, mandatory for 5G outdoors, and especially important because GPS installations will be challenging on small cell sites, and local GPS also fails to offer a robust timing source. Additionally, we are focused on the next generation of small cell architecture. While 1Gbps is the current maximum data rate of our backhaul products, our engineers are developing 10Gbps small cell backhaul solutions, further lowering the total cost of ownership for MNOs and making small cells even more cost effective.  


Outdoor coverage is not the only area driving demand for small cells. Research suggests that 90% of mobile usage is conducted indoors and yet 60% of consumers are unhappy with their indoor experience. The problem is that modern architecture and construction materials, such as metallised insulation, steel frames and treated glass, prevent mobile signals from penetrating buildings. We have effectively built virtual faraday cages in which to work and live. When combined with the higher frequency of 5G (and therefore lower range), and the expected demand for in-building coverage and high data rates, it’s easy to see why indoor small cell technology will become as essential as Wi-Fi.   


But indoor small cell technology is not without challenges. Multiple-occupancy buildings are commonplace, and landlords and businesses are reluctant to have numerous boxes on the ceiling or piled inside the office to enable network coverage for each operator, tenant and user. Currently the operators share space between two, but channel partners struggle to create a solution that works for all four. Landlords or building owner’s find it difficult to achieve occupancy rates without good indoor mobile coverage and events planners, conference centres and hotels may lose customers who demand better mobile coverage, especially in light of 5G. 


That’s why we’ve been developing host-neutral indoor small cells. By using virtualisation technology, we can separate the operators within the same cabinet. This delivers the benefits of meeting customer demand for coverage within the building, without compromising MNOs strategies by sharing facilities.  


For channel partners, this host-neutral cabinet delivers a repeatable, reliable offering that they can sell to customers, rather than a complex, piecemeal solution that may not deliver the same level of coverage. 


From offices to beaches, department stores to coffee shops, ultra-urban to ultra-rural, BT has already deployed more small cell technology than anyone else. Last year we deployed 300% more small cell technology than the previous year and given the advent of 5G this is only going to expand further. Our heritage in macrocell backhaul technology means we are already a leader in connectivity and cellular networking. Given the growing importance of small cells and the insatiable appetite from consumers our innovation and experience can help satisfy this demand, while simultaneously delivering a cost effective solution to both MNOs and channel partners. 

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