Cooperation critical to unpicking messy small cell market

Features

Cooperation is central to the proliferation of small cells, with operators, vendors and public sector bodies urged to work together to deal with onerous issues such as cost, backhaul, rents and site acquisition.

As the Small Cell World Summit 2014 got under way in London today, delegates were told of the need for unity.

On the eve of the World Cup starting, thankfully the CTO panel was lacking in tortured footballing metaphors. However, delegates heard how in order to be a success, a wide range of mercurially talented individuals needed to put their egos aside and come together to work for the greater good. So perhaps the World Cup comparison was implicit.

The Small Cell Forum issued new research to mark Release Four, its guide to deploying small cells in urban areas. CEO Sue Monahan said: "The perceived barriers are around backhaul availability and cost, securing sites and the monetisation of the network, provisioning and management."

These concerns were shared by an operator panel comprising senior executives from EE, O2 and Three from the UK, Norway's Telenor and Portugal Telecom.

Telenor CTO Frode Stoldal said regardless of what technology is used, the underlying question remains the same. "How can we together become more competitive and really try to crack the code of monetising data?"

Bryn Jones, Three CTO, said what was holding all aspects of the small cells market back was the sheer volume of players: "For me, the ecosystem is complex. There are councils, infrastructure providers who provide street furniture, operators, small cell vendors, transmission solution companies and the like. Trying to get all of the suppliers together to get one solution that is cheap to deploy and simple to operate [is difficult]."

Backhaul continues to trouble operators, with the challenge facing them starkly outlined by Portugal Telecom CTO Manual Rosa da Silva. He said: "You either have fibre or you don't. If you don't, you are dead."

According to Telenor's Stoldal, the necessity of fibre would only increase as operators move towards more virtualised systems. He said: "If you look five years down the line, we will be talking about cloud RAN so fibre is a key requirement. We will need fibre at every kind of access point. Is that sustainable for the industry and can operators keep up with that capex? Probably not, so we need to work together."

For Portugal Telecom, whose network is not as data heavy as other European operators, there were further challenges, particularly when it comes to HetNets.

"Anything Het means costs and for reasons that are obvious, we don't like costs," said da Silva. "We need to get HetNets to the point where we can have customers pay for it. Monetising data usage in Portugal is very difficult. We can co-finance it on the enterprise side like rolling it into an enterprise Wi-Fi system."

So does it matter? Given how small cells have been on the verge of a European breakthrough for some time, is the market's continued difficulty to get it off the ground a sign that everyone should move on?

Not so, argued operators, who said that small cells were critical for meeting capacity needs.

Telenor's Stoldal commented: "If you think about customer experience, they do not care about what it's on... they want a fantastic experience. I make money from monetising data so I want to keep it on my network and not hand it off onto another."

Both EE and Three talked up the benefits of small cells among their networks. For EE, it has experience with bringing together networks, whether it was the original MBNL joint venture between Three and T-Mobile, or when the EE merger brought together Orange and T-Mobile.

EE’s Head of Network Strategy David Salem said: "We have gone through two waves of network consolidation. When we add and remove macro cells the small cells helped to replace the small elements of coverage that moved about."

Three's Jones added: "We have more than 100,000 small cells deployed across the network - femtocells in residential and enterprise femtocells in hotels and other business areas. For us, it's about the customers. All our customers expect to be able to use their service wherever they are whenever they want to use it and they want consistency."

So in order to try and "crack the code" of monetising data, as Stoldal puts it, what can be done to make the small cell market work? Central to its future was whether each of the interested parties could row in the right direction.

But as EE's Salem suggested, the market is not quite there yet: "There needs to be a degree of cooperation that isn't there yet or isn't quite ready yet."