Catching Up On Small Cell Deployment

light-pole-on-i-805-in-san-diego2I remember going to a presentation at a trade show a few years back where there was great enthusiasm for the future of small cell sites for cellular networks. The panel, made up mostly of vendors, was predicting that within five years there would be hundreds of millions of small cells deployed throughout all of the urban areas of the US.

Small cells are supposed to relieve congestion from the larger existing cellular towers. They can be hung anywhere such as on light poles, rooftops, and even in manholes. They have a relatively small coverage area ranging from 30 to 300 feet depending upon the local situation.

But I recently saw that MoffettNathanson estimated that there have only been 30,000 small cells deployed so far. That’s obviously a far cry smaller than the original projections and it’s an interesting study in the dynamics of the telecom industry for why this didn’t go as planned. We’ve seen other examples of new technologies before that didn’t pan out as promised, so it’s a familiar story to us that have been following the industry for a while.

There are a number of different issues that have slowed down small cell deployment. One of the key ones is price since it can cost between $35,000 and $65,000 to get a small cell in place. That’s a steep price to pay for a small coverage area unless that area is full of people much of the day.

Another problem is that small cells need to be fiber fed and also need to have a source of reliable continuous power. Not surprisingly, that turns out to be a big issue in the crowded urban areas where the small cells make the most sense. It’s not easy, for example, to bring fiber to an existing light pole. And it’s often not even easy to bring reliable power to some of the best-suited cell locations.

The problems that surprised the cellular industry the most are the problems with getting permits to place the cell sites. Remember that these sites are deployed in the densest parts of big cities and many of those cities have a lot of rules about running new fiber or power lines in those areas. Some of the cellular companies have cited waits as long as two years for permitting in some locations.

Yet another problem is that the big cellular companies are having a hard time figuring out how to incorporate the new technology into their processes. The whole industry has grown up dealing with big cell towers and all of the work flows and processes are geared towards working in the tower environment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen big companies have trouble dealing with something new. It was the inability to change the existing workflows, for example, that led Verizon to basically start a whole new company from scratch when they launched FiOS.

And like any new technology, the small cells have not always delivered the expected performance. This has a few companies stepping back to assess if small cells are the right way to go. For instance, AT&T has largely stopped new small cell deployment for now.

The FCC recently took a stab at some new regulations that might make the permitting process easier. And the FCC just released a policy paper that promised to look at further easing the rules for deploying wireless technology and for getting onto poles.

The main reason that I’m following small cells is that the industry is on the cusp of implementing two new technologies that are going to face all of the same issues. It’s clear that 5G is going to need small cells if it is to be able to handle the number of devices in a local area that have been hyped by the cellular companies. And Google, AT&T and others are looking at wireless local loop technologies that are also going to require small fiber-fed devices be spread throughout a service area. My gut feeling is the same problems that have plagued small cell deployment are going to be a thorn for these new technologies as well – and that might mean it’s going to take a lot longer to deploy these technologies than what the industry is touting.

Fighting Over Wireless Pole Attachments

PoleOne of the next big industry battles is going to be between pole owners and the cellular and other wireless providers that want to use poles for wireless transmitters or mini-cell sites. All five FCC Commissioners have said they are in favor of streamlining the process for wireless providers to get onto poles and to locate new towers, and this is not going to sit well with pole owners or with cities.

We will see two different types of wireless companies wanting to use poles. First are the fiber-based ISPs like Google Fiber that want to deploy wireless loops. These companies are looking at using the millimeter wave length spectrum recently released by the FCC to get broadband into the homes. This spectrum won’t carry big bandwidth very far, and so there is a general assumption that these providers will want to mount transmitters on poles in neighborhoods.

The other providers are the big cellular companies. They will also want to use the millimeter wave spectrum using 5G protocols to provide fast local loops and to support big data. They also will want to support 5G cellular, which will use the standard cellular spectrum. The cellular providers will want both transmitters on poles plus they are likely to want to build new urban cell towers.

There are a number of issues with pole mounted antennas that will need to be addressed. Urban poles are often already densely packed with wires and it’s not going to be easy to somehow make space for a new device among the many wires. The biggest concern of other wire owners is that these transmitters might create a safety hazard for linemen who have to make repairs on poles. For the most part nobody yet knows much about the actual size or power requirements for these devices, so it’s premature to speculate. But it’s certainly possible that adding new boxes on already crowded poles will add complications, particularly for line work done in bad weather.

We don’t know yet what the FCC specifically has in mind, but the only real way to ‘streamline’ the process will be to force pole owners to accept wireless transmitters without objection. Current pole attachment rules don’t have any specific provisions on how to deal with connecting wireless transmitters. Most current rules create very distinct zones for wires for telcos, cable companies, electric companies, municipalities and competitive overbuilders. So I have to assume that the FCC will develop a specific process for dealing with requests by wireless providers.

Anything the FCC does is going to be complicated by the fact that about half of the states have their own pole attachment rules. The FCC allowed states to do this, and states without their own rules use the FCC rules. The various states have come up with significantly differing pole attachment rules and processes and it would go against tradition if the FCC was to preempt any of the state-specific rules.

The FCC discussion also makes it sound like they are going to want to require some sort of expedited process to enable wireless providers to deploy their facilities quickly. In many cases the wireless companies are going to want these transmitters to be fiber-fed and also tie into power. I’m sure the FCC has been watching the huge fights between Google Fiber and pole owners and I’m sure they want to avoid these same fights for the wireless providers. But it would be ironic if the FCC makes these exceptions for the wireless companies while they did nothing to aid the fiber overbuilders that have gotten bogged down in pole disputes.

The cell companies are also going to want to build new traditional towers or get permission to hang devices on buildings and places other than poles. Some cities have taken a hard line over the years on how and where cellular companies can place new towers and so we can expect a jurisdictional fight if the FCC tries to overturn state and city rights on tower placement.

The FCC is correct that pole issues and tower placement can be barriers to efficiently deploying the next generation of wireless transmitters. But it somehow doesn’t feel right if the FCC bends all of the rules for the wireless companies while they have allowed fiber overbuilders to be delayed for years over disputes with pole owners.