by John Cahill
Vice President of Business Development

At first glance, you might think deploying and activating a small cell would be relatively easy compared to a Macro cell. Turns out that is not necessarily the case. Macro sites are expensive to deploy but provide a “big bang for the buck.” Small cells are very targeted deployments for delivering needed coverage or capacity to the benefit of a much smaller group of users. A small cell, however, still requires space, power and backhaul as well as appropriate RF design, network integration and interoperability, operations and maintenance, all of which potentially contribute to the cost of a successful network addition. Carriers look at Return on Investment as a major differentiator for approving capital projects and small cells are a tough business case.

So where will it go? What are the alternatives? How can the small cell business case be improved?

There is much discussion about the role of Wi-Fi and whether this technology can alleviate or reduce the need for small cells. Wi-Fi is already an integral part of smartphone data usage. Some studies indicate Wi-Fi currently carries over 60% of smartphone data traffic. The thirst for capacity isn’t stopping. Wi-Fi will continue to be a key part of the solution and may even grow but it won’t be the only answer. The integration of Wi-Fi and Cellular LTE, e.g., LTE-Unlicensed and LTE Assist, are key topics the equipment industry is working on to improve alternatives, delivery and performance.

Even with Wi-Fi-LTE integrated solutions such as “plug and play,” self / minimal install and auto provisioning, network integration and self-optimization are the critical requirements for widespread, high volume, small cell deployments. Wi-Fi is a widespread de-facto network technology for office buildings and homes because of the ease of installation and use. There are many models for office network design with installation and maintenance ranging from obtaining a single Wi-Fi router and plugging it into your Internet Access to hiring an Internet Provider/VAR/Integrator to design, install, operate and maintain your entire office network. Small cell deployments need to be the same from a cost as well as deployment, network integration and operation perspective. Cellular small cells need the same deployment options – whether it’s a single unit plug and play solution or a more complex design and installation.   These heterogeneous, site/customer specific delivery models will be required to meet the extensive demands to “light” buildings with cellular network capacity and growth.

For small cells to reach the widespread volumes once envisioned, there must be viable economic deployment alternatives to meet the varied needs of carriers as well as targeted locations.