As countries step into the 5G era, they are increasingly looking to explore the varied use cases of small cells to make the path towards 5G implementation much smoother. Globally, policymakers and regulatory bodies in the telecom domain are looking to devise policy frameworks that ease the deployment of small cells, thus facilitating seamless service delivery through 5G networks.

While legacy mobile networks were once dominated by macrocells, now small cells – which vary in their range, power levels, form factors, etc., depending on th­eir use case – have become the new norm. Small cells are available in the forms of fem­­tocells, picocells and microcells/met­ro­­cells, which are used in residential, en­t­er­prise, urban and rural environments. To­day, small cells are particularly significant due to their usage inside buildings as well as in underground transportation. Th­e­ir usage also extends to populated urban areas and isolated villages. While the deployment of small cells has been a critical part of 4G net­work upgrades and expansion, it will become even more critical for 5G networks be­cause of the introduction of higher spectrum bands that necessitate denser network deployments to support larger traffic volumes per unit area.

Policy and regulatory scenario

In India, both the Department of Teleco­mmunications (DoT) and the Telecom Re­­gulatory Authority of India (TRAI) have been active proponents of the need to establish robust digital infrastructure, including small cells. The National Digital Communications Policy 2018, which aims to create a robust digital communications infrastructure by 2022, recognises digital communications infrastructure and services as key enablers and critical determinants of India’s growth and well-being.

Further, TRAI’s recommendations on broadband connectivity propose the creation of a national portal for right-of-way (RoW) permissions, exemption of RoW charges for the next five years, and the setting up of a centrally sponsored scheme to incentivise states/union territories (UTs) to implement RoW reforms. Further­more, TRAI has pointed out the need for a proper regulatory framework to support the de­ployment of small cells. It has emphasised that this policy/framework should have standardised guidelines for small cell size, power, space, etc., to make street furniture ready for deployment of small cells.

In a recent move, DoT has lau­nched the Gati Shakti Sanchar por­tal, a central RoW portal, to hasten the deployment of 5G in India. The vision for this portal is to provide an institutional mechanism for collaboration between all stakeholders, including central and state/UT govern­me­­znt(s), central landowning au­tho­rities (railways, defence, ports, etc.), lo­cal bodies, and service providers, to facilitate RoW applications and permissions for deployment of digital infrastructure. Ac­co­rding to Lt. Gen. Dr S.P. Kochhar, dir­ector general, Cellular Operators Asso­ciation of India, “The launch of [the] Gati Shakti – Sugam Sanchar portal is a milestone which will enable the government’s vision for Digital India. It provides a [processing] platform for both the authorities and industry to apply for RoW approvals for laying optical fibre cable (OFC), e­r­e­c­ting mobile towers, [installing] small cells on street furniture, etc. [It allows them] to submit their applications to various agencies of the state/UT governments and local bodies. It is an important step tow­ards making a robust mechanism to achi­eve the goal of Broadband to All, as envisaged in the National Digital Communica­tion Policy 2018.”

While these are some welcome steps for India, there is a glaring absence of provisions for small cell deployment in the RoW regulatory framework.

Benefits of deploying smalls cells for 5G connectivity

With 5G promising high speed and data rates, small cells would improve coverage in high density and low signal areas, ensuring network connectivity everywhere.

With enhanced mobile broadband and massive machine type communication ca­pabilities built in, 5G small cells can connect a large number of devices on a single private network, meeting capacity dema­nds for wireless connectivity. By enhancing coverage in various areas and as per case re­quirements, small cells can support a hi­gh­er number of users simultaneously, facilitating low-cost deployme­nt. Further, coverage via small cells can be managed as per re­quire­ments. Cu­s­to­mised coverage can be established for private networks as needed, by deploying small cells accordingly.

Unlike Wi-Fi access points, 5G small cells are built on 3GPP mobile technology, ensuring seamless hand-offs between small cells with no connectivity loss. By deploying their private networks with 5G small cells, private enterprises can keep all data on premises rather than putting it on a public network or cloud.

5G small cells can be deployed in sha­red, licensed, unlicensed or locally lic­e­n­sed spectrum, providing enterprises with a variety of deployment options for their pri­vate networks. Due to their low power operation capability, small cells require less power to function.

Current deployment by telcos

With the deployment of 4G and voice over long term evolution (VoLTE) services, data consumption started increasing and became the major revenue stream for telcos, while voice call revenues fell. Due to this shift, Indian telcos decided to move out of 2G and 3G, and started migrating to 4G LTE with spectrum refarming. The present deployment in terms of outdoor coverage comprises a mix of macro base transceiver stations (BTSs) and small cells. As of now, telcos have installed small cells in large buildings and public places for in-building and Wi-Fi coverage. In the absence of comprehensive data, small cells are estimated to account for about 5 per cent of total BTS sites in India. In terms of ownership, it has been observed that small cell sites are still mainly owned and maintained by telcos themselves or their vendors, and not by towercos.

Key challenges

The key on-ground challenges faced by stakeholders while deploying small cells are:

  • Absence of a regulatory framework on small cells: The present RoW rules are silent on small cell deployment and access to street furniture.
  • Lack of backhaul availability: There is a shortage of adequate backhaul at reasonable costs, creating significant limitations in deployment.
  • Lack of electrical power supply: Ob­taining permits from electricity boards is a challenge. Additionally, street furnitu­re needs power backup.
  • Permits from residential bodies: Small cells need to be deployed in resi­de­ntial areas, many of which are gover­ned by resident welfare associations. Th­­e­­se are self-regulatory bodies, and it has been challenging to obtain permits from them, as they are not governed by existing rules.
  • Non-uniform implementation of RoW rules by states and municipal bodies: The RoW rules are yet to be im­plemented by all states, UTs and mu­nicipal bodies. Many of them continue to impose their own costs and app­roval frameworks, which are on the higher side.
  • High permit fees: The lack of implementation of rules at the local level leads to high and non-discriminatory fees.
  • Lack of sustainable infrastructure in select areas: In densely populated urban areas, especially marketplaces and congested areas such as metro cities, it is challenging to get access to adequate st­r­eet furniture for deployment.

Future outlook

Considering these challenges, the industry needs to iron out the bottlenecks that are currently delaying small cell roll-outs in the country. To this end, the RoW rules need to be amended to incorporate provisions for small cell deployment. Further, the approval timelines for small cells need to be reduced to 15-30 days, with automatic deemed approval after 30 days (through online portals). Another key step would be to effectively use spare capacity on existing backhaul networks, and consider existing residential and business fibre networks for potential use in small cell backhaul deployments. To this end, ensuring access to spectrum and provision of adequate spectrum bands for backhaul with wider channel sizes in millimetre wave bands (such as E-Band) to augment capacities and improve site pl­an­ning would be a good measure. Encour­aging the sharing of passive infrastructure is also a step that would help reduce costs. Further, ensuring grid availability for electrical power supply, and availability of smart poles at no/nominal costs for small cells; and electricity boards offering subsidised rates for small cells is another key step.

If the government and regulatory bodies formulate a comprehensive framework taking into account these key measures, India would be able to harness the potential for 5G, drive the post-pandemic reco­very and leapfrog to become a $5 trillion dollar economy.