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

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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(s t) alone is rolling out 40,000 small cells over the next two years.

8 Responses to “Alcatel-Lucent solves the problem of where to put 4G small cells”

  1. Mark Jacobs

    Good article Kevin. I’ve recently become interested in small cell vs SP WiFi. Tell me, is there a problem with handing off calls from small cell to macro cells? I know that on SP WiFi, it’s problematic because of the signalling requirements via SGSN/GGSN. Do we see the same problem on small cell?

  2. I too am not taking a pot shot at the author. This is a very good article
    I’ve been in telecom for some time. Here’s a question that has come up more often in recent months. With smart grids & meters, waste electricity and wireless technology ever increasing, how can it or should say will it affect our health? I’ve barely scratched the surface on this and I believe there have been some studies pro & con on this subject. My concern is the concentration in any one given area by all utilities and carriers. Surprisingly, the most valuable information that I was given came by means of a real life situation at a health professional’s office surrounded by all this. There are solutions for home and office environments but the cost can be high and the lack of knowledge of this is of more concern.

  3. Kevin Fitchard

    No problem Martin. Sorry if I was confrontational. Every post could always have more background — more info is better than less. I just don’t always have the time to thoroughly background every post I write.

  4. Kevin – Thanks for your reply and explanation, which I buy…Perhaps what irked me most was the positioning by ALU and the perception that it is trying to create as a thought leader in the area of small-cell provisioning and deployments. As one of the pioneers in this market (from 2000-2010), I may have reacted a little testily, and for that, I apologize. It wasn’t directed at you or your writing – as I said, I enjoy your articles and I shouldn’t have taken a shot at the messenger.

    Peace out.

  5. Kevin Fitchard

    I’m not sure why you have a problem, Martin. I’m familiar with all of those companies previous work and I’ve written about it all extensively in the past. I’ve given this plenty of credit. This isn’t a post saying “look at this crazy new technology small cells!” It’s a post about one program trying to solve the provisioning problem. I can’t make every news post a history of small cells and capacity-centric deployments.

  6. Kevin – I enjoy your articles, but they could sometimes benefit from a little more background research. Companies, including Metricom, MeshNetworks, Tropos and others, have been building wireless hardware to deploy at street level and on public infrastructure dating back to the late 90’s/early 2000’s. The challenges, as you note, include power and backhaul, which was partially addressed by employing mesh algorithms to multi-hop back to a network access point. Others, like BelAir Networks, which was acquired 2 years ago by Ericsson, recognized that some cable operators had overhead strand (co-ax), which was both powered and was itself, wired backhaul. Cablevision began rolling out its Optimum Wi-Fi service, over 5 years ago, delivering small cell, outdoor Wi-Fi, from over 30,000 wireless small cells, hung from its overhead infrastructure. Others, like Brighthouse (in FL), Comcast and Time Warner have followed suit, to the extent that they are able, because much of the cable infrastructure is also underground, so it is an imperfect and incomplete piece of the puzzle at best.

    BelAir/Ericsson recognized that the mobile operators would need to inject capacity “surgically”, as you describe it (and as we began to promote almost 4 years ago – 1/7/2009 – “A Cell for All Reasons”, and

    The “Muni Wi-Fi” community has been confronting the challenges of deploying for well over a decade now, and there are certainly lessons learned about the challenges of doing so. ALU may be in the game, but some credit should also go to those who have come before them.

    That’s my .02!

    Martin Suter