Operators in the region are increasingly deploying small cells to offer further connectivity to their consumers, improving the service indoors and outdoors. CommsMEA asked some experts how telcos can monetise small cells deployments and how this solution will be part of the development of 5G.
Saleem Al Balooshi
Executive vice president of network development and operations at du
Network director at Vodafone Qatar
Associate director at BCG – Middle East
Wireless business developer at Alcatel-Lucent
Head of mobile broadband at Ericsson North East Africa
Head of MBB radio sales MEA at Nokia Networks
Dr. Mohamed Nadder Hamdy
Director wireless network engineering at Commscope
CommsMEA: The shipments of small cells in the MEA region has jumped to more than 280 thousand units in 2014, according to the Small Cells Forum. How are operators embracing small cells in the region?
Aslam: With the rising data usage especially in hotspots and indoors, small cells becomes an important solution to serve this demand; and as the gulf region is one of the most sophisticated data demand in the world, with concentration in hotspots and indoors driven by the weather conditions in these countries, small cells is key.
CommsMEA: Small cells are physically closer to the end-users. How can this help to have improved analytics of user behaviours?
Aslam: Small cells are closer to the end user with locations of their concentrations, focus and movement, which can serve as a unique platform for identifying users behaviours information; and with the rise of big data this information could be analysed and transformed to value propositions to satisfy customer demands and needs.
Al Balooshi: As the small cells are serving a radius of 20-50 metres, this gives the operators a closer correlation between geographical information and what sort of data is accessed. It is a very rich source of information that can enable operators to provide customised offers to small group of users and even to single users that fulfil their service usage interest; for example, if user(s) under specific small cells are watching football matches regularly then operators can provide them with special packages for the sport channels and target them with advertisements related to football matches and maybe with special discounts/offers in cooperation with major shops that offer sports stuff. Advertisement opportunities and Location Based Services can be provided in more precise and valuable way.
Moya: The location and range of small cells solutions provide a clear advantage for user behaviour analysis. In the cases when small cells locations are data hotspots, they target areas with highest density of subscribers and highest traffic profiles in the network. In these cases, the small coverage of small cells provide location granularity that is not achievable with macro cells or IBS sites. The location, timing and profile of the subscribers under small cells’ services will allow deep analysis on location based behaviour, applications and services. This specific information will then be used to optimise the network against service patterns.
CommsMEA: When using small cells, operators talk about ‘hidden traffic’, which is generated by users who were not able to achieve high throughputs before the deployment of small cells. How can small cells help to reach this hidden traffic?
Aslam: Small cells in fact is the solution to capture the hidden traffic, as it serve where the normal network macro layer coverage cannot reach.
Bartosh: Radio signal quality plays a key role in determining the throughput speed for subscribers. Since the distance to the small cells is normally less than 25 metres, the radio signal quality is dramatically improved. In addition, next generation small cells use twice the modulation rate as current macro sites. As a result of this dynamic, subscribers will typically experience increased speeds by up to a factor 10.
CommsMEA: What does this hidden traffic mean for operators in terms of growth?
Aslam: Capturing the hidden traffic will allow operators to capture missing revenues, not only that but provide excellent customer experience everywhere which is the key of growth.
Al Balooshi: The increased demand of quality data services and the high competition is a challenge but at the same time an opportunity for the operators to increase customer loyalties and to insure that customer expectations are always exceeded. Deploying small cells and being closer to the user will definitely let the users feel that full attention and special experience is provided to them. This will lead to more usage of the services while enjoying the high speed and high availability of the services and at the same time satisfied users can act as ambassador for the operators spreading this satisfaction to others. This will increase the traffic growth, users growth and so the revenue.
Khodeir: In a recent Ericsson study in major cities such as Istanbul and Dubai, it was determined that approximately 70% of the traffic is delivered over WiFi; much of which is not monetised. The majority of this traffic is happening indoor over small cells and represents a 13-15 time expected increase in traffic between now and 2020. This is a substantial growth opportunity and operators with the right small cell strategy can capitalise on capturing this traffic and associated revenues.
Bartosh: Hidden traffic often refers to indoor traffic, a significant amount of which, over 50%, is already off-loaded via WiFi. For the remaining share of hidden traffic, the increase enabled by small cells is not only dependent on network quality but also on the commercially available data packages. Overall, we feel that the customer experience will improve significantly as traffic across the mobile grid could grow between 30% and 50% based on BCG project experience from piloting different approaches for small cell deployment with operators.
CommsMEA: What challenges are operators facing when acquiring sites to place small cells? How can they tackle this challenge?
Aslam: The main challenge lies in the approvals building of municipalities and buildings owners for installing the small cells, and for tackling this there are several new form factors developed by the small cells suppliers to make its visually appealing also using some camouflage solutions for the small cells making it hardly visible by the crowd, making it more appealing to municipalities and building owners to approve the concept.
Moya: Small cells site acquisition is a complex topic. Small cells deployments are (by definition) done mainly in urban areas. Therefore in many cases, they require camouflage, and in Nokia, we have already been working in such solutions, for outdoor applications. There are already several small cells installed in our region in light poles, advertisement panels, or camouflaged in walls. The size of this equipment makes these solutions feasible in almost every case. In the case of indoor small cells, their deployment is not different to that of a wireless LAN router, in any kind of building. It’s clear that small cells are very flexible for any kind of site solution; however the speed of their implementation can represent a challenge for operators, depending on how easy site acquisition is done in each country.
Bartosh: Due to the fact that it is very difficult for several operators to share small cell sites, three potential outcomes to this challenge exist, these include active small cell sharing, third party small cell services by real estate owners or specialised companies (this is one of the focus areas of Crown Castle in the US), and massive competition for sites with first mover advantage. One of the issues observed in markets with large numbers of small cell deployments is that small cell site rents are often comparable to macro site rents; this poses immense economic challenges to operators.
CommsMEA: Small cell backhaul is another challenge. How can operators face it?
Aslam: Without proper backhaul there is no small cells. From this perspective having fibre to small cells would be optimum solution for small cells, however with the challenges facing the fibre connectivity in different markets, there are some innovative backhaul solution that can support the small cells deployment like non line of sight solutions.
Hamdy: As operators begin to utilise the 4G spectrum, a key issue will be how to provide the backhaul capacity needed to support ever-growing data traffic from small cells. It’s a problem specifically relevant to operators in the UAE, given the sheer hunger for mobile data in this country.
Fibre is always the best backhaul for mobile sites, whether active or passive PONs. However, such luxurious infrastructure is only available in few markets. This leaves most of the operators with only the wireless options. Some operators are considering LTE-TDD as a new backhaul method for their small cells. A number of outdoor modems are in the markets that are suitable for such solutions.
For those that choose microwave backhaul, they can be more easily installed in urban environments, but each small cell requires its own microwave backhaul link. The large numbers of these small cells being deployed results in a higher risk of signal interference in congested areas. Thus, it is critical for operators to deploy high-quality backhaul antennas that make the best use of the available spectrum and avoid interference as much as possible in order to obtain the best capacity and data throughput. It is also worth noting that CommScope Sentinel microwave antennas support the latest ETSI class4 specifications.
CommsMEA: What other challenges are operators facing when working with small cells?
Aslam: The main challenge is sites acquisition and backhaul, overcoming these challenges will pave the way for massive deployment of small cells.
Defour: MNOs need to do site selection based on quantifiable data in order to optimise their ROI. Without the right data, MNOs are left to guess the right locations for placement, waste resources placing metro cells where little to no value is added, possibly creating additional interference that degrades the overall network performance. The challenge in acquiring new small cell sites is the selection of the candidate sites that will minimise interferences while maximising the macro offload and improvement of end-users’ QoE. With TCO optimisation in mind, MNOs should also leverage new agreements and partnerships for the use of cost-efficient friendly sites. Product innovation enables more compact solutions to integrate well into street assets and furniture such as bus stops, advertising panels, video surveillance or lamp posts. Small cells’ site acquisition and preparation is driven by volumes and can’t follow an approach inherited from the traditional macro RAN deployment.
CommsMEA: According to some experts, small cells are the key component of 5G mobile technologies. What is your opinion about this statement?
Bartosh: We expect that 5G will bring much higher speeds of up to 10Gbps with a significantly enhanced quality of service and reduced latency, which will require high modulation schemes and flat network architectures. In addition, 5G will allow the connection of thousands of devices to one cell including low energy sensing modules and UHD video streaming terminals. It will support massive MIMO to help overcome spectrum and interference limitations. Small cells are ideally suited to cater to these demands and will, hence, will play a key role. They will create meshes of massive wireless connectivity. We believe that more than 95% of the cells in a 5G network will be small cells. In recent discussion with operators we found broad agreement to this view but also a significant hesitation to fully commit to the journey. Some more traditionally minded CTO’s and their radio engineers are firmly believing that the data growth will level off and that their current macro cell topology will remain largely intact in 5G.
Defour: Small cells are already a solid reality with current technologies and will continue to play an increasingly critical role in any MNO’s network strategy, affording greater agility, flexibility, and the ability to serve mobile users at the lowest possible cost while ensuring the highest level of quality. Some of the key principles driving ongoing developments of 5G solutions are multi-RAT integrated communications transparent to the end-users, massive capacity, addressing crowds and non-traditional devices (Internet of Things/Machine to Machine), energy efficiency, scalability and cost efficiency thanks to network function virtualisation (NFV), innovative services thanks to context awareness and smart networking, all bringing major improvements for a unique end-user experience. Small cells will definitely play a major role in this evolving ecosystem, for the benefits of both mobile users and MNOs. It’s not about “if”, but actually “when” and “how”, for each MNO to take the right decisions according to their operational and business objectives.
Khodeir: I fully agree that small cells represents an important component of the evolution towards 5G especially with the user demands of ubiquitous accessibility and continued growth in network traffic coupled with Machine-to-Machine communications with latency sensitive applications and consistent high speed connectivity. Harmonisation of small cells and coordination between the network layers and technologies will be a key ingredient to meeting the network growth and 5G evolution which includes a strategic Small Cell investment and scalable rollouts.
Hamdy: I certainly agree to this. 5G is targeting the so called “millimetre waves” as a key spectral band. Deploying such high frequencies with low propagation characteristics in mobile radios, will be made possible by utilising small cells with massive mimo array antennas. In the meantime, the industry is also heading for standardising LTE-Unlicensed and LTE-Licensed Assisted Access technologies in the 5GHz band. Small cells will play an integral role in these scenarios by aggregating the unlicensed 5GHz to the macro licensed bands.