Alcatel-Lucent solves the problem of where to put 4G small cells

Alcatel-Lucent's Cube, the radio end of its cloud network architecture

We’re gradually entering the age of the small cell, tiny mobile cell sites that are mounted on walls and light poles rather than high up on towers. But as the topology of the network changes so do the logistics of deploying it. Carriers can’t just stick these cells anywhere they choose. They have to figure out how to get them power and how to connect them back to their networks as well as get local government approval to install them.

Alcatel-Lucent believes it has an answer to that problem: Around the world there are innumerable ISPs, utilities, cable companies, fiber backhaul providers and even outdoor advertisers that have the both the real estate and the infrastructure to host small cells. Why not pair them with carriers looking to shrink down their networks?

The Franco-American network equipment maker on Tuesday launched a new small cite certification program with the aim of pre-designating millions of outdoor and indoor locations as small cell-ready. For instance, a company that hosts outdoor advertising would show that its billboard locations not only have the space to mount a small cell, but have the necessary power and accessible nearby fiber lines to backhaul the cell’s traffic. It would also have to prove that any small cell deployed there would meet the local community’s zoning and planning regulations.

Alcatel-Lucent has already pre-certified 600,000 sites in Europe and the U.S. and has signed up about a dozen site providers, including tower real-estate firm Crown Castle, backhaul provider EdgeConneX and fiber ISP Zayo. According to Alcatel-Lucent VP of small cells Mike Schabel, the program is also working with several large cable companies, which are of particular note since their coax is practically everywhere. Carriers partnering with a cable provider could literally hang their small cell networks off of cable lines.

Just because a site is certified, doesn’t mean carriers can merely bolt a small cell on a billboard or bus stop and walk away, Schabel said. They’ll still have to go through the provisioning process. But Schabel said the certification program will eliminate the constant trial-and-error process of site identification and investigation carriers have to deal with in planning their networks. “They no longer have to treat every site as a bespoke deployment,” he said.

That’s important because for small cells to work they have to be easy and cheap to field. While building a macrocell is an expensive and time-consuming process, the returns on far-reaching tower-mounted cell sites are far greater than the returns from a small cell. The tiny radios are designed to surgically insert capacity where it’s needed the most and therefore need to deployed in huge volumes. AT&T alone is rolling out 40,000 small cells over the next two years.

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