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As commercial 5G nears, small cells generate interest

Interest in small cells as an element of commercial 5G mobile networks is growing, particularly in countries with supportive regulatory environments. Meanwhile, a UK trial of wholesale small cell infrastructure has kicked off in London

Growth in small cell deployments by operators is set to surge in the coming months as commercialisation of 5G mobile networks nears. Use of the technology is proliferating in countries that have lowered regulatory barriers relating to cost, site approval and deployment processes, according to research on behalf of the Small Cell Forum (SCF).

The SCF – a telecoms organisation dedicated to promoting and supporting the development and deployment of small cell tech – found that deployments will grow by 92% in North America and by 74% in Southeast Asia through to 2019.

Growth in Europe was lagging both of these regions, said the SCF, because efforts to lobby regulators in North America and Asia to bring about more favourable regulatory processes were paying off.

The organisation said that in the best case, small cell deployments could reach 11.4 million units by 2025, compared with 7.1 million without appropriate regulatory support.

“Small cells will provide the backbone upon which 5G will be built,” said SCF chair David Orloff, “and as regulations ease and barriers lower, we are seeing operators realise their plans for truly dense HetNets to support the networks of today and the future.

“The Forum and its partners have spent considerable amounts of time working with regulators around the world, sharing our considerable expertise to create an environment in which small cells can realise their potential.

“While this is reaping rewards in many regions, there are others who run the risk of being left behind – and it is critical that regulators allow operators the freedom to build out the next-generation networks and the enhanced connectivity they will bring.”

For enterprise networks, the SCF’s research found a number of factors likely to accelerate deployment, including lower deployment costs, clarity around how cost and risk are shared between operator and enterprise customer, and clarity around return on investment (ROI).

The report noted that cost considerations were paramount for businesses, and many of the other important enablers for small cells were geared to lower total cost of ownership and the effort required by the IT department (or operator) to deploy them.

It said convergence of small cells with edge compute nodes, particularly for internet of things (IoT) use cases, would also drive deployments.

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Meanwhile, network builders Arqiva and CityFibre have announced a multimillion-pound pilot of small cell technology for 5G in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.

The joint trial will see CityFibre build a brand-new 15km, high-density, multi-operator-capable fibre network to enable operators to deploy small cells quickly and easily to connect homes and businesses to a 5G network.

Hammersmith and Fulham is one of 14 London boroughs with which Arqiva holds a concession contract enabling it to place network hardware – such as small cells – on street furniture such as lampposts. The firm is already working with O2 to install 300 small cells in London to shore up the operator’s existing 4G network.

It believes the ability to exploit street assets is critical to the densification of networks that will be needed to support 5G, along with the deployment of more street cabinets to provide a shared space for multiple operators to connect their small cells to the fibre backhaul. The pilot will see CityFibre add 90 new cabinets.

“As demand for data continues to increase exponentially, the pressures on networks will continue to grow and densification using street furniture and small cells is critical to deliver the network of the future,” said David Crawford, Arqiva MD of telecoms and M2M.

“Our aim with this project is to show the business and consumer benefits of this architecture and a successful roll-out in Hammersmith and Fulham can be the prelude to a wider deployment in future.”

CityFibre commercial director Rob Hamlin added: “This has been an invaluable exercise to demonstrate the capability of our fibre networks to support the next generation of 5G small cells and services. 5G networks will only work on fibre and a new, modern infrastructure is needed at scale to support them.

“With our £2.5bn roll-out of full-fibre infrastructure to five million homes already under way, we are creating a 5G-ready network platform nationwide that will provide the best network at the best economics for mobile network operators.”

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