Small cells should be seen as business, not engineering solution

Too many operators still consider small cells an engineering-led solution for plugging network holes rather than a business-led solution for launching new services. This is the warning from small cell specialist ip.access, backed up by research commissioned by Yankee Group.

After conducting in-depth interviews with five leading mobile operators, Yankee principal analyst, Ken Rehbehn, said it was striking that every operator’s thinking on small cells was dominated by the traditional engineering view of coverage and voice reception.

The thinking was “narrowly focused,” said Rehbehn. “It seems, as far as small cells are concerned, RF engineers still drive deployment. The marketing and sales teams are largely unengaged, leaving the services potential of small cells trapped within tactically oriented RAN teams. Clearly, a major service opportunity is being ignored,” he said.

ip.access CEO Simon Brown told that technical issues with small cells, such as interference management, are now “largely solved” and proven by the company’s million-plus small cell site deployment with AT&T in the US.

As a result, small cell deployments are no longer an engineering concern and should be seen as a business concern for launching location or presence-based services and providing improved voice and data service to business customers to lock them further into their network, Brown said. So the budgeting for these deployments should now be passed from the RAN team to the marketing team.

“Small cells have a coverage-filling heritage,” said Rehbehn. “But it’s outdated. Operators who still only look at the technology from that point of view are restricting themselves, restricting their service opportunities, and most importantly, restricting revenues.”

The results from the Intelligence Industry Survey 2014 confirmed that this view is still widely held. Around 44 per cent of respondents said that indoor LTE coverage was a very important or extremely important competitive differentiator today, while 53 per cent believed it would be just as important in two years’ time.

But the industry does not believe operators are tapping into the enterprise market through indoor LTE coverage solutions. Almost 49 per cent of respondents to the survey said operators used indoor coverage primarily to meet geographical coverage requirements. Yet only 12 per cent thought they were specifically targeting enterprises.

Another issue that can be addressed by moving small cell deployment into the remit of the marketing team is acceleration of the provisioning process.

RAN teams typically take a month or more to provision a cell site at many operators, yet ip.access discovered that reusing existing resources, such as the procurement and deployment system used for handset provisioning, can get a small cell provisioned in minutes. “The procurement and deployment system for RAN is far too clunky but small cells are not so different to handsets, so operators can already do it,” said Brown.

The 2014 Intelligence Global Industry Survey drew responses from more than 2,000 industry professionals, including more than 700 operator representatives. The full report from the survey will be made available in mid-February. You can register to receive the report here.

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