Virgin Media Business names vendors in small cell backhaul trial

Virgin Media Business is working with four companies to test and prove small cell backhaul architectures.

The trial is taking place in Leeds, where VMB has a concession from the council for access to street poles to provide mobile broadband and WiFi access. The companies providing equipment for the trial are Intracom and CCS , Siklu and Sub10 Systems .

Kevin Baughan, Director of Wireless, Virgin Media Business, said that the trial is not about vendor selection but is instead intended to test and prove microwave and millimetre wave architectures for small cell backhaul.

“We have two millimetre wave and two microwave vendors. We want to validate the architecture to push the whole industry forward,” he said.

VMB did something similar last year when it trialed small cell outdoor systems at 2.6GHz, even though it had no intention of operating its own equipment in licensed spectrum.

The cable operator’s aim is to act as a host of infrastructure upon which operators will build small cell networks. It will provide its fibre on a wholesale basis as backhaul to the operators’ core networks, if required, as well as grant access to the poles and locations for which it owns rights.

So how would a shared small cell infrastructure work? Baughan said that operators would do their own radio and cell planning, as well as planning their own “mesh” or node-to-node backhaul. Then operators would request the best fit locations from VMB and come up with the most optimal locations.

When it comes to choosing access points, and the cell backhaul technology and vendors, that will be a decision for the operators themselves.

“The most cost-optimal solution is based on a wholesale model,” he said, “So it could be interesting to consider getting to a shared model at the small cell layer.”

Does Baughan see multiple operators deploying small cells on the same pole? In fact, no – he reckons that access point size, power and electric restrictions will mandate one access point or radio node per pole. But he does see different operators siting equipment on separate poles in the same urban locations. In fact, VMB is not allowed to do an exclusive deal with just one operator, he said, as the City authorities have mandated open, public access.

There are some who think that operators will only achieve the cost efficiency they want from small cell networks if they countenance some sort of sharing. Mike Schabel of Alcatel-Lucent told Avren’s Small Cells World Summit 2013 that the industry needed to “consider” the shared model.

“The most cost-optimal solution is based on a wholesale model,” he said, “So it could be interesting to consider getting to a shared model at the small cell layer.”

The issue for operators is that if they wish to use their small cell presence to differentiate themselves, so reducing churn and increasing usage, then a shared model limits their opportunity to do so.

VMB’s vision of acting as a host, rather than providing a turnkey shared network, would seem to allow a middle ground for operators.

Of course, there will be some instances where the operator itself gains direct local authority access, as O2 has done in London in Kensington and Chelsea. But where operators cannot get sole access, some sort of site sharing or wholesale arrangement looks preferable.