How do you overcome Small Cell Deployment Obstacles?

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We hear how small cells are going to be deployed more this year than last. In fact, I’ve been saying myself. It’s just that small cells have not taken off like we had all hoped, or at least as I had hoped. The good news is that the improvements being done to the macro sites have made the small cell a better enhancement rather than an offload as we thought. Also, the CRAN systems have made the typical small cell model look insufficient as CRAN offers the macro capabilities in a single radio head compared to a typical small cell.

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What does that mean? It means that carriers will look at CRAN deployments first. Outside of the carrier, it means we all look at CRAN as a small cell deployment rather than what it really is, an extended sector of a macro site. So, I digress from the topic to explain the difference. I did so to help you see that when we talk small cell deployments, what we’re really talking about is small cell, CRAN, oDAS, and more. Many of these will be referred to as small cells going forward. Remember that the carriers want everyone to think that we’re just deploying small cells, not CRAN or mini-macros or anything else. It’s easier to identify all of this in one big group, small cells.

Small Cell Obstacles and how to overcome them.

OK, now, let’s look at the small cell deployment obstacles and solutions.

  • Permitting – the FCC is pushing to get the permitting problems eliminated. The carriers still need to pay permitting fees, this does not go away. However, the cities, townships, and municipalities can no longer sit on these permits. They may still reject them if they have just cause. The can also have a say in what installed equipment should look like. The citizens may still protest them. But the time to deployment will be greatly reduced. Many larger cities have already overcome this by offering a mass permit approval process to accelerate deployments. Let’s face it, the citizens want the coverage, but they don’t want to see the equipment. I get it, make it look nice and keep quiet if you want a happy citizen.
  • Backhaul – here is a key component. How do you get the backhaul or fronthaul to the device? Whether it’s a radio head or a small cell or a CRAN interface, you need to get the connection to the device to make it work. Can we do this wirelessly? YES! Sprint has been Small Cell Cover 4doing this with their 2.5GHz spectrum successfully with a UE Relay. Others may use microwave, fiber, or point to multipoint, (PTMP). It comes down to space and making it look aesthetically acceptable. That’s been the problem with microwave, even in the 70 to 90 GHz range. It has to be small and hidden. Hence, Sprint’s UE Relays have been a success. With the rollout of Sprint massive MIMO and 5G in the 2.5GHz spectrum, they should have the ideal spectrum for massive backhaul paired with new solutions and bandwidth. I think that the 3.5GHz spectrum could produce similar results if set up properly. The UE Relay has 1) smaller antennas, 2) can receive from multiple cell sites and choose the best one, and is 3) an ideal solution. Sprint uses this technology for their magic boxes, which appears to be a success. Although fiber is still the preferred backhaul for any of this, it’s still the hardest to get anywhere.
  • Mounting assets – still an issue. Many states have limited what an owner can charge for these assets. While that seems like a great win for the carriers, for Crown Castle, it seems like a step backward. They have put money into building poles and offeringofficial logo backhaul. The good news is that if they have limited rent income, they could earn it back selling their backhaul. Give CCI credit, they have a great solution. I don’t know how it will play out, but they were proactive in planning for small cell deployments. They worked out many of the problems, like noise, aesthetics, and so on. They were pioneers in the small cell asset planning.
  • Site Acquisition – is still costly. You would think this wouldn’t be as important but think of what goes into site acquisition. It costs money for the lease amendments if not a new lease. It has to have the structural analysis if that is a requirement. Carriers and landlords require CDs, (construction drawings), to be done for every site, even small cell sites. They need to know what power and backhaul will be used;  what equipment will be mounted and more. It costs money to get all of this done, not as much as a macro site, but pretty close.
  • Installation, commissioning, and integration – I have to be honest, I don’t see this as an obstacle. Installation is cheap. The commissioning and integration, (C&I), generally plug and play. All the same, C&I is something that could be done remotely if the equipment allows it. The installer is asked to power it up and wait to see the green lights. This really should not be an obstacle anymore.
  • Equipment – I bring this up because it could be more than you think, the equipment is something that the carriers have worked out, but it’s not always the same. There are mounting kits, grounding, routers, camouflage, physical security, and so on. All the things that the site survey should point out. It pays to do a site survey, covered next. 
  • Site surveys – this is where most groups go cheap, they use google earth to site the poles, then when they get there, they see a problem, which usually falls on the installer’s shoulders. Oh, the installer probably gets paid the least and has to most problems to deal with, not to mention that every change request is contested. Remember that the installer is at the site with the equipment and needs to mount it for that $200/site the carrier wants to pay. So, any delays and the installer loses money. Usually, the delays are caused by the group planning the installation, carrier or OEM or GC, and the installer won’t get reimbursed for the additional work or hardware unless he has a good contract and scope of work. So, the physical site survey should save you delays, costs, hiring new installers, and so on. They are easy, and can all be done with a simple iPhone or Android using an app. Don’t make it harder than it already is. Do the work, save time and improve the process. If it’s a large deployment, you should be able to have 10 surveys done a day unless you bog down the survey team with useless requirements. Be smart and think it through and have most of the work done in the back office. Make sure you have the best pictures you can get. Remember that this information will be used for the permitting, CDs, and so on. Make the most of it up front to have the process run smoothly on the backend.

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To sum it up, the obstacles are starting to be eliminated. The site survey will eliminate many of the obstacles that remain. It’s still not free or cheap, but it’s becoming more cost-effective than it ever was. That combined with the fact that the CRAN solution allows more macro-like capabilities to be used at a small cell location helps push things along.

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Planning is the key! I’ll tell you from experience that only so much planning happens in the office behind a laptop. What generally happens is 2 things. Problems get reduced to nothing or blown out of proportion during the costing phase. I have seen it go both ways. Analysis paralysis happens all the time. Most engineers think of all that could go wrong and talk everyone out of doing anything whereas sales think of everything going perfectly and push too quickly. Real-world input helps with the reality that the worst-case scenario could happen, or the best-case scenario could happen. Find the balance that happens in the real world. You need balance when building a small cell deployment solution.

This is where experience pays off, real world and quoting needs to work together. Customers want cheap, however, they get mad when contractors walk off the job. Contractors walk off the job when they aren’t making a profit. Again, it’s a delicate balance that needs to be considered. You as for cheap, you get shit. I mean that literally. You get what you pay for.


Thank you for your support and your time. And good job on learning all you can in the wireless industry, you are amazing! Now, go out and impress people!

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Be smart, be safe, and pay attention!

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