Huge growth in small cell deployment is being forecast and the case performs well in Powerpoint, but something's been overlooked - where are they all going to go? By I.D. Scales.
It's a problem that UK-based research Ovum has laid out in its two latest small cell reports, Small Cell Market Opportunity Part 1: Carrier Wi-Fi; and Small Cell Market Opportunity Part 2: Femto-, Micro-, and Picocells.
The micro cell approach is well-understood and it's recently been joined by the concept of the heterogeneous radio access networks and the growing acceptance of carrier WiFi into the small cell family fold. On cue, next year will see some major small cell deployments from the likes of Vodafone.
But, argues Ovum's Daryl Schoolar, principal analyst in Ovum’s Network Infrastructure Telecoms team and report author, there's a looming problem.
As things currently stand the ultimate economic viability of small cell probably rests on the ability of operators - in one way or another - to network share them, but there's little sign yet of movement.
Imagine for one moment the logistical burden and cell clutter involved in three or four different operators building out small cell networks in all the same hotspots - shopping centres, retail zones, transport termini, and so on.
“Not only will it be difficult for multiple operators to deploy 100+ small cells in a given city; governments could even legislate sharing to avoid excessive cluttering,” says Schoolar.
While the topic of "is there a viable wholesale or network sharing model being hatched for small cell" often comes up in discussions with WiFi and small cell vendors and operators, there is no sign yet of an end-game, so the clutter problem is likely to become a live one in the near future.
Then there's the old problem of 'real estate' and how operators cope with property owners wanting huge payments. As operators soon discovered with their macro cell builds, various kinds of property owners soon latch on to the potential for bidding up prices for prime sites - especially when multiple operators are building. That situation is likely to be amplified as small cell builds get under way - and another strong argument for sharing.
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