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If scaling small cells is a problem now, what does that mean for 5G?

A conversation with CommScope about the power, backhaul and siting challenges facing small cells today and in the context of 5G

Deployment of small cells at scale has dogged operators for years. Each site is unique and comes with its own set of challenges associated with securing adequate power and backhaul. Couple that with regulations that vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and achieving a scalable process becomes quite difficult.

That’s the problem with small cells today. So, in the context of 5G, which is predicated on ultra-dense networks in support of capacity- and latency-sensitive applications, the scale problem is poised to only get more difficult.

Ray Butler, CommScope vice president wireless network engineering, said the scale issue is “probably the most relevant question right now. How do we get the capex and opex down on a per site basis to be able to deploy these tens of thousands of small cell sites that we talk about?”

He pointed to process efficiencies related to physical enclosures and poles that serve to streamline and add flexibility of access that helps drive deployment speed. Design changes and process changes allow for pre-configuration meaning the site can be brought live more quickly.

“That will be part of the answer,” Butler said, adding, “We see legislation being pushed through in the states and municipalities intending to streamline the site acquisition process. The site acquisition is the longest pole on the tent. If we’re talking about cost, there are still costs to be removed from the pole, the installation of the pole and the entire process. We see a lot of that happening.”

But, despite this positive movements, “I don’t know that there’s a silver bullet there,” Butler said. “There’s a lot of pencil sharpening, a lot of process flow, a lot of working with the municipalities” that needs to be done to address “both the upfront capex and the long-term lease rates and the operating costs on an ongoing basis.”

As the industry approaches a 5G NR non-standalone specification this year, and preps for the standalone 5G NR spec in the third quarter of 2018, what’s the go-forward as it relates to small cells?

“It’s going to be a matter of, upfront, the small cells will be very laser-focused where they’re placed,” Butler said. “They’ll be very strategically placed. I think as we get to higher density that the grid we’ve talked about for years will start to take shape in the more dense parts of the network where there is data traffic demand that can justify that type of a build out. I think the other thing that will help is the revenue side of the equation. If a site can be leveraged for both fixed, wireless and mobility…I think that will be a much easier business case.”



Sean Kinney, Editor in Chief
Sean Kinney, Editor in Chief
Sean focuses on multiple subject areas including 5G, Open RAN, hybrid cloud, edge computing, and Industry 4.0. He also hosts Arden Media's podcast Will 5G Change the World? Prior to his work at RCR, Sean studied journalism and literature at the University of Mississippi then spent six years based in Key West, Florida, working as a reporter for the Miami Herald Media Company. He currently lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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