The telecommunications technology of small cells, which has long been used for select applications, is gaining prominence across all geographies. Today, the technology has a big impact on how we connect.

The unrelenting thirst of consumers for content and dead spot-free connectivity has left wireless telecom carriers with a critical challenge of navigating spectrum and radio technology obstacles to give consumers the pervasive, seamless connectivity that they are demanding at cost points that make sense to communications service providers (CSPs) in the context of the rapidly declining prices.

Small cell technology has quickly emerged as a possible solution to this problem. In sports and entertainment venues, on campuses and buildings, and other closed environments, small cells deliver wireless voice and data communications efficiently and effectively.

All major CSPs have announced densification plans, with some already deploying small cells in their networks. About a third of small cells are now deployed in outdoor environments, and by the end of 2019, global demand for outdoor small cell solutions is expected to grow by a factor of six compared to a fourfold growth in indoor small cells. As CSPs look to further fortify networks for 5G upgrades, small cells are set to play a key role.

There are many reasons for CSPs to move forward aggressively. Small cells promise a cost-effective solution for filling coverage gaps, increasing bandwidth, and getting networks ready for 5G without the need to build more expensive macro sites.

Indoor applications are obvious and plentiful. Small cells are ideal for places where macro antennas cannot reach. They also offer a way to rapidly deploy a network with precision and customise it for outdoor environments ranging from sports venues and school campuses to downtown street canyons and rural neighbourhoods. With a small hardware footprint, small cells can be discreetly attached to fixtures such as lamp posts, signs and other street furniture.

However, small cells also bring additional complexity to the design of the network, as well as to operational processes. To manage the increased complexity, manufacturers have built automated optimisation and configuration tools into devices. They have also integrated multiple networking protocols and frequencies into a single package.

However, those steps go only so far. Many CSPs underestimate the scope of network and operational complexity, thereby increasing the risk of higher costs and less flexibility with the introduction of new applications. This reduces their ability to respond to changes in demand.

To address this, two big shifts are required for any organisation developing its small cell strategy – network design shift and organisational shift. A network design shift will involve moving from a monolithic set-up to multi-technology. To prepare for the future of 5G, an architecture that can seamlessly operate across multiple technology bases and between licensed and unlicensed spectrums is required. A nationwide macro environment contains thousands of cells to engineer, deploy and maintain. A small cell environment has hundreds of thousands. In addition to shifting from a “macro towers only” mindset to a “connect anything” strategy, networks must operate transparently and securely across licensed and unlicensed spectrums.

Operational practices will need to shift from rigid to flexible and include dynamic toolsets. Light-touch, cookie-cutter agile processes will have to replace heavier, custom-engineered processes to control the cost, and speed up the delivery of hundreds of thousands of cells. New ideas, tools and organisational processes will be required to navigate the complexity of managing capacity and quality as the demand pattern remains essentially unknown and chaotic.

The potential of small cells is anything but small. Determining how to operate effectively amid this technology explosion requires a new strategic mindset. The National Digital Communications Policy, 2018 has improved the ease of doing telecom business in India. However, suitable amendments are required to speed up approval processes for faster deployment of small cells. Administrative fees for getting clearances should be reconsidered to make the deployment economically viable. If the challenges are not addressed immediately, it will be difficult to realise small cell benefits in the areas of smart cities, healthcare and industrial IoT.

By Rohan Lobo,
Partner, Consulting,
Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu India LLP