Following the Small Cell World Summit 2021 in May, Andrew Conway, who also sits on the Small Cell Forum (SCF) Board, sat down with Sue Monahan, to get her perspective on the small cell deployments globally.

In the discussion below, Sue (who has been at the helm of the SCF since 2014) highlights how digital infrastructure will be at the heart of a global recovery and her excitement on the bright future of innovation demonstrated at the Small Cell World Summit.

Andrew Conway (AC): What do you see as the main mission of the Small Cell Forum– can you tell us about the Forum and its focus?

Sue Monahan (SM): Many groups talk about driving digital transformation, but that is exactly what we do. SCF develops technical and commercial enablers to accelerate small cell adoption and drive network densification globally, in particular the standardisation of key elements of small cell technology.

Our current work program reflects these aims. On the one hand it covers highly technical elements like 5G products and components, 5G networks, edge computing for small cell network services and management and automation. But it also covers new business models like neutral hosts, alternative deployers and private networks. And, of course, there is a strong focus on advocacy and policy.

AC: How has the pandemic impacted small cell deployments – do you see a rebound?

SM: Covid-19 brought uncertainty to the business climate – along with supply chain disruptions. That meant a slowdown in deployments.

However, the pandemic has also led businesses and consumers alike to rethink the way they live, work, learn and play. This has led to a significant increase in demand for broadband connectivity globally – especially mobile broadband. That will increasingly mean 5G – and 5G requires digital infrastructure.

In fact, a growing need to adapt to new ways of working and the many new use cases emerging will mean an acceleration in deployments. The upshot is that 5G adoption will accelerate – and so will small cell rollout: small cell densification is going to make much of 5G happen.

I would go so far as to say that digital infrastructure deployment – supported by small cell rollouts – is at the heart of a global recovery from this pandemic.

AC: A lot of focus has been on indoor small cell usage – but outdoor use cases are growing. What is the accelerant you see now – is it 5G?

SM: Many of the use cases that will justify investment in 5G will require dense zones of capacity, both indoor and outdoor. In particular Internet of Things (IoT), smart cities and transportation will drive the need for outdoor densification – and that means using small cells.

Autonomous vehicles, for example, will require the benefits that come when small cells are installed close to the users and devices, while smart city technology will not find it easy to achieve its full potential without outdoor small cells. Many of the sensors that make smart cities happen will be connected to the network – so that they can drive better ways to increase efficiencies and improve public safety.

Consumer habits are another factor. 4G is already driving increasing use of mobile data outdoors, including streaming services. This demand will increase as 5G rolls out.

AC: Deployment of small cells at scale in local authorities and cities – what are the challenges and how does the SCF work help in this respect?

SM: We know the upside of small cell deployment: more reliable communications. The downside is that small cell deployments need to get to large scale to be highly effective. This will involve many stakeholders. In addition, siting issues and the complexity of approval regulations will slow this process down.

Each year, SCF publishes a market status report, built around a detailed forecast of deployment of small cell networks in a range of scenarios, plus in-depth analysis of the drivers and barriers for each scenario. Our work plans use these reports to help us to address those barriers and speed up deployments.

AC: So what are the barriers to at-scale deployment?

  • The top three are:
  • Access to affordable sites
  • Keeping total cost of ownership under control; regulatory issues are relevant here
  • Ensuring standard processes for equipment and site approvals

One way to overcome these barriers is to develop low-cost repeatable deployment processes – and to promote them.

For example, SCF and industry trade organisation 5G Americas have published two papers on streamlined small cell siting regulatory and deployment considerations. These papers are aimed at government decision-makers and regulators. Also, SCF and GSM Association (GSMA) have worked with International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) to recommend the adoption of a harmonised set of installation rules for Radio Frequency (RF) compliance; this is a key requirement for defining the necessary distances for installers and the general public from the radio transmitters contained within the small cell. This ongoing work, we believe, is essential, not just for small cells but for communications in general.

AC: In the past 5 years, what innovations have you seen in the small cell world and what is coming next on the roadmap?

SM: Five years ago, the small cell ecosystem was still in its infancy; you would see a lot of small cells in residential environments. But the next stage was always going to be much more challenging: expansion to enterprise and public urban deployments.

That is where SCF comes in. In recent years there have been many innovations in shared infrastructure, disaggregated architectures, virtualisation and open RAN, private LTE and edge computing. SCF has contributed to all of them.

Neutral hosting, for example, reduces cost and risk and simplifies network buildout and management. It’s a more flexible approach to small cell ownership.

Meanwhile, in recent years, the industry has started to adopt more open architectures with a disaggregated RAN. This allows for interoperability and multivendor networks. And software-based network functions became virtualized to run on standard, off-the-shelf hardware.

Then there is the role of private network operators (PNO). PNOs give vertical industries the chance to have their own private networks – networks that can be optimized for their specific requirements. Add edge computing and these verticals can bring data processing to their private network solutions. That adds to the value proposition.

Even more innovation is coming thanks to 5G, mobile edge computing and IoT. And, of course, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and augmented reality (AR) will soon start appearing everywhere – from network planning and management to personal assistants and from gaming to smart cities.

All of these technologies – and more – will revolutionise small cells and with them the business and consumer use cases that they can serve.

AC: Open RAN is the evolving new architecture. From your perspective, what are the key benefits this will bring to the industry?

SM: Open RAN will deliver the promise of interoperability and increased competition. The biggest advantage of open RAN is the freedom to mix and match disaggregated components from different vendors. SCF’s 5G FAPI – a family of common interfaces – allows small cell component suppliers to compete and will play a significant role in making open RAN a reality.

AC: There is a strong interest in 4G/5G private networks globally – can the small cells ecosystem help scale that opportunity?

Sue Monahan: Absolutely. In fact, private cellular networks (PCNs) are at the heart of SCF’s work plan, not least because small cells hold the key to unlocking the private cellular network opportunity.

Why? Firstly, because they bring benefits in spectrum, technology and cost in LTE and 5G private networks. But small cells are also secure, scalable, low-cost, light touch, easy to deploy and come in a variety of form factors.

This is an exciting opportunity. That’s why we have published a series of documents and blueprints to provide industry stakeholders with clear guidelines for building a business case around private networks.

AC: Last year, SCF published a paper citing that over 75% of small cells could be deployed by ‘non-traditional’ operators over the next five years. How do you see neutral hosts with shared infrastructure helping to grow the deployment of small cells?

SM: Many different types of organisations are deploying small cell networks today. That trend will continue. Our market survey indicates that there will be a steady rise in the number of small cells that are deployed and managed by companies that were not rolling out cellular networks before 2018. It’s worth adding that in most cases these deployments will be incremental, not substitutions for rollouts that would otherwise have been made by established Mobile Network Operators (MNOs).

We estimate that over three-quarters of the small cells that will be deployed by non-traditional operators between 2020 and 2026 would not have been implemented at all had MNOs been the only organisations able to build small cell networks.

Which brings us to neutral hosts, which reflect the diversifying ecosystem of companies providing small cell services, equipment and components. In fact, half of SCF’s board is now comprised of neutral hosts.

We have, I believe, passed a tipping point for so-called ‘non-traditional’ small cell deployment. Over half of new indoor small cells are being installed by alternative deployers including private networks, neutral hosts, heavy mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) and ‘direct to enterprise’ models, in addition to those deployed by mobile operators. This trend is set to continue. The forecast is that over 70 per cent of deployments will be deployed with the new models by 2026. The largest share is predicted to be neutral hosts.

AC: Do you see this as competition or collaboration with MNOs/Carriers?

SM: This trend should benefit MNOs. As we see additional non-traditional deployers entering the market, MNOs will leave behind former concerns about sharing infrastructure, and will see these new small cell networks as an opportunity to extend their own reach and services cost-effectively. The Joint Operator Technical Specification (JOTS) collaboration is an example; it involves four large MNOs in the UK specifying technical requirements for shared in-building solutions using small cells. These relationships are becoming more and more collaborative.

As for SCF, our aim is to accelerate small cell adoption, and we are delighted to see so many new entrants in this changing ecosystem. SCF is a strong advocate for emerging neutral hosting models, so we were especially delighted to see the JOTS collaboration and expect to see many more – and not just in the UK.

AC: What work are SCF and its members doing in the neutral host space?

SM: Our market research predicts strong growth in indoor and outdoor neutral hosting. The market status report indicates more than 70% of indoor enterprise small cells will be deployed by neutral hosts and other new entrants.

Neutral hosting is therefore central to our work at SCF. Our recently formed neutral host group captures technology requirements for alternative deployment models for enterprises and communities. Its task is to agree a common set of architecture requirements. These include:

  • Identifying the global set of hosting architectures supporting multi-operator, private networking and other alternative deployment models – both indoor and outdoor.
  • Extracting common requirements and standard approaches for relevant aspects including RAN interfaces, operations support system (OSS) management, virtualisation, spectrum, security, transport, etc.
  • Clarifying line items common to all deployment models and those which must remain flexible to customise the hosting offer – for different MNOs on the one hand, and venues on the other.

To see where we are with this, look at SCF231 Options for indoor cellular, SCF235 Private cellular networks with small cells and SCF250 Neutral hosts on JOTS NHIB. SCF’s new program builds on this recent work.

AC: What were the key themes that came out of the Small Cells World Summit 2021(SCWS)

SM: Small Cells World Summit 2021 was the first virtual conference we have run, and we were thrilled with how it went. The sessions on neutral hosting, indoor systems and towerco models were very popular.

The over-arching theme that came out of the conference was ‘diversification’ – of applications, of supply chains and of deployers. From new deployer models to Open RAN and 5G use cases – in every industry and sector, businesses are diversifying, and so too is the technology to enable new services and business cases.

What SCWS demonstrated was that many companies are already poised to take advantage of these new use cases, or are already doing so, from Connected Cars, to indoor coverage and private networks. And at the heart of all this are small cells, with the benefits they can bring to these scenarios.