The demand for superior network coverage even when indoors is significantly driving the deployment of small cells. These cells provide telecom connectivity in zero-coverage areas or areas that have weak networks, typically enclosed premises such as residential buildings, offices, shopping malls, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, airports and railway stations.
According to the Small Cell Forum (SCF), the majority of indoor small cells are being deployed in the enterprise environment. These deployments are primarily taking place in areas like residential buildings, stadiums, airports, shopping malls and college campuses, where the demand for connectivity is at an all-time high. A study by the SCF reveals that the number of indoor small cell deployments is expected to reach 5.6 million globally by 2025, significantly higher than outdoor small cell deployments, which are expected to reach 2.76 million during the same period. Meanwhile, the global small cell market is expected to reach around $3,495 million by 2025, recording a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of over 37.2 per cent between 2019 and 2025.
Indian deployment experience
For telcos, small cells result in enhanced penetration and improved service provisioning indoors and thus, incremental revenues. The focus is shifting to quality, and telcos are going for small cells to add more capacity indoors. Further, in India, it also helps them adhere to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s quality of service norms.
Reliance Jio Infocomm has been at the forefront of small cell deployment with its exclusive partners Samsung and Airspan. Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea are also focusing on indoor coverage and are deploying small cells to improve network quality. As part of its modernisation and network upgradation exercise, Vodafone Idea has deployed more than 5,000 massive MIMO, small cells and TDD sites across Mumbai, covering Churchgate, Prabhadevi, Pali Hill, Lokhandwala, Versova, Andheri, Jogeshwari, Bandra and Dadar, among other regions. It has also installed around 2,000 indoor coverage solutions for high rises and commercial complexes in the city. Apart from this, Vodafone Idea has set up over 6,600 massive MIMO, small cells and TDD sites in the Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh circle. Further, the operator has set up 8,400 massive MIMO, small cells and TDD sites to enhance coverage and network capacity in Delhi NCR. By and large, Nokia has been undertaking the deployment of small cells and single radio access network (RAN) and massive MIMO technologies for the operator.
Tower infrastructure providers are looking at small cell deployment as a key revenue opportunity and growth area. Indus Towers and Bharti Infratel have stated that their combined entity will explore new growth areas such as fibre sharing, small cells, data centres and WiFi offloading. Further, Indus is planning to create 30,000 smart small cells in India in the near term. As per the tower infrastructure provider, India’s Smart Cities Mission has provided an opportunity to the country’s tower companies and mobile network operators to add a layer of smart connectivity to urban landscapes, leveraging existing and new street furniture and cell sites to create heterogeneous networks. Indus Towers has been actively involved in developing scalable models for smart cities. To this end, the deployment of small cells is a key strategy.
To undertake large-scale small cell deployments, it is imperative to develop suitable solutions for their backhaul. That said, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for small cell backhaul and a trade-off among capacity, coverage and cost is often inevitable.
Backhaul technologies such as bonded copper, fibre and wireless microwave are being adapted to serve as backhaul networks for small cells. Each of these has its advantages and disadvantages. While fibre connections provide the highest throughputs, they can be expensive in the absence of an established infrastructure. As per telcos, fibre optic backhaul for small cell deployment is costly and cumbersome. Meanwhile, wireless requires navigation through varying line-of-sight conditions.
The most promising solutions for meeting backhaul requirements for small cell deployment are mmWave technologies including E-band (70-80 GHz) and V-band (60 GHz). E-band is suitable for high density and high capacity wireless backhaul applications as well as small cell links of 300-500 metres. Further, it offers a wide spectrum range (10 GHz) and very high capacities similar to fibre. E-band also solves the spectrum congestion problem in urban and suburban areas. Meanwhile, V-band is suitable for links in the 300-500 metre range and reduces intersystem interference.
Spectrum in V-band can be delicensed and used for backhaul to support multi-gigabit throughputs. E-band and V-band could also play a crucial role in establishing a robust backhaul network for 5G networks. However, the government will have to make this spectrum available for operators in order to leverage its potential to improve backhaul networks. The small cell backhaul equipment market is currently at a nascent stage. It is estimated to be valued at around $4 billion, as per industry experts.
Besides backhaul-related issues, small cells create complexities in network design and operational processes. Moreover, telecom operators need to identify millions of new locations to deploy small cells, acquire permits for these locations, and bear operational costs to lease, deploy and maintain these sites. Even globally, in many countries, the time taken by local authorities to approve planning applications for small cell implementations can take 18-24 months.
Small cells for 5G
Small cells are emerging as the key component of the 5G roll-out strategy of mobile network operators around the world. They are using the technology for delivering a reliable and consistent 5G experience.
Most of the telecom operators are planning to use mmWave spectrum for 5G deployment, which provides higher capacity rates than low band spectrum, but covers smaller distances. It is not possible to deploy mmWave spectrum through macro networks given their propagation characteristics that limit the ability to penetrate walls, trees, buildings and other structures. Radios need to be closer to the consumer in 5G than they are in 3G or 4G, which makes small cells a natural fit for 5G roll-out.
According to a report by the SCF, small cells for 5G networks are going to witness a CAGR of 80 per cent between 2019 and 2025. Meanwhile, with the launch of 5G, indoor small cell deployments will reach 3.5 million by 2025, reporting a CAGR of over 73 per cent, during the same period. The global small cell 5G network market size is expected to increase from $528 million in 2019 to $3,509 million by 2025, at a CAGR of 37.1 per cent. At present, telecom operators are focusing on deploying small cells in low frequency bands for delivering improved bandwidth to customers. However, at a later stage of 5G deployments (post-2021), the small cell network is expected to expand on the back of increased adoption of IoT and M2M technologies.
Emerging business models
Going forward, the uptake of small cells is going to increase significantly, in India as well as globally. The commercial launch of 5G solutions will drive the adoption of small cell solutions. To this end, a viable business model could be setting up independent small infrastructure companies to deploy small cells, which could be shared amongst communication service providers. Besides expediting roll-out and enhancing coverage, such a model will lower the capex for telcos that are already reeling under severe debt and investment commitments.
That said, small cell roll-out will have to be facilitated through enabling policies, which should include mandatory provisions for small cell deployment on government land and premises. Moreover, a framework needs to be developed in order to identify the best sites for small cells, expedite the approval process for their use, and keep deployment costs in check.