Small cells in the 5G era

A week before Small Cells World Summit 2019 opens its doors, Julius Robson, Chief Strategy Officer, Small Cells Forum, tells TMN how small cells fit into 5G deployment plans, neutral host models and more.

As 5G rollouts begin, we are seeing an initial focus on the macro grid, as (most) operators start their rollout in mid or lower band spectrum. When do you think we will see small cell deployments in volume to support 5G?

At Small Cells World Summit our opening session looks at the market status for small cells, with the very latest market status figures, from SCF and Rethink Research. As a sneak preview, these figures show a gradual ramping up of 5G small cell rollout, getting started around 2020, and by 2024 representing around half of the small cells shipped.

New deployments and upgrades of small cells by radio technology 2018-2025

What lessons does the SCF have for operators who may, as a result of 5G, be grappling with planning small cell rollouts at volume for the first time?

Order of magnitude increases in deployment volumes will require new approaches to deployment.  Small cell installations need considerably less engineering than macro towers, and so require smaller teams and fewer engineers.

Retaining the functions which matter most for differentiation, whilst sharing everything else, is the goal here

For the very large volumes, MNOs will need to leverage third parties and partners help them roll out. This will be particularly necessary in verticals where deployers may require domain specific knowledge and relationships to work in places like factories, industrial plants, or hospitals for example. 

It will also be necessary to work with neutral hosts for scenarios where multi-operator services are required in public venues, hotels and hosted working space for example.  The key part of any partnership is to have the right responsibility split. Technology choice is key here, as shared infrastructure can offer significant savings in exchange for relinquishing some degree of control.  Retaining the functions which matter most for differentiation, whilst sharing everything else, is the goal here, and very much the core of discussion in SCF’s neutral hosting group.

How does the migration to network functions virtualisation intersect with small cells?

Virtualisation has been on our agenda at Small Cell Forum for several years now, and we have updated our battle-hardened “FAPI” SoC interface to be suitable to support a PNF-VNF option 6 split over ethernet transport.

5GNR versions of these specifications are almost complete.  Virtualisation enables more flexible use and customisation of the deployed hardware which can be adapted in real time to changing needs, rather than resorting to the overnight remote software update. Virtualisation of the small cell’s resources also makes sharing more attractive in multiple-operator scenarios. Resources can be isolated and guaranteed, and configuration and software changes can managed independently of each other. We see several neutral hosts adopting virtualisation for these reasons, and hope to hear more on this at the conference on the topic.

For critical apps and use cases, and even where consumers are paying a premium, continuity of coverage and user experience may be key for 5G. How can the industry best get 5G capabilities into indoor environments? What technical solutions look most likely – ditto commercial models?

The best way to get 5G capabilities indoors is to deploy 4G now in a way that can be upgraded to 5G when the time comes

Today, there are still gaps in indoor coverage which would be best served with 4G deployment, given it will take some time before 5G support becomes prevalent in the device mix.  What is important then, is that ongoing 4G deployments are, as much as possible, 5G ready.  Various analyses have taken place to look at how site spacing is impacted by higher carrier frequencies of 5G, but mitigated by the higher order baseline MIMO that smaller wavelengths afford.

Putting in enough cabling is also important here, and although the crowd chants fibre, fibre, fibre, cat6 is sufficient for indoor 5G deployments too.  The technologies of choice will be the ones that work commercially. New commercial relationships will need to be formed between operators, third party deployers and enterprise users, and this is best not done with the latest and flakiest technology.  The best way to get 5G capabilities indoors is to deploy 4G now in a way that can be upgraded to 5G when the time comes. This topic will be the subject of our Indoor solutions and 5G readiness session at Small Cells World, and we expect plenty of debate and knowledge sharing on the topic.

This year’s SCWS event is a little different in that it is now under direct management of SCF. Should we expect anything different from the event, now and in the future, as a result?

This year is very exciting for Small Cell Forum, because as an industry organisation we have always endorsed the event, however this year we have taken on the organising and running the event. In fact, it is an entirely new event but under the same name, same place and time because we were aware how popular this event as always been, as a regular in the industry calendar.

Taking on the organisation of the event has meant we can run the agenda and choose the topics – the topics that our members have been grappling with over the last year, that we know are key to the industry. We are running this event for the benefit of our members and the wider small cells and wireless community. In putting the programme together, we have been focused on designing sessions that will encourage knowledge sharing, debate and bring about real outcomes and solutions that will drive our industry forward.

We’re delighted to have so many great companies and organisations speaking and attending, and we hope everyone will come away with a new insights, perspectives and contacts.