The proliferation of next-generation technologies such as internet of things and artificial intelligence, and the rising smartphone penetration in India has led to an unprecedented surge in the de­ma­nd for high speed and ubiquitous connectivity in the country. Moreover, in the last two years, the need for telecom services has increased exponentially as the Covid-19 pandemic has forced people to work indoors. The demand for seamless connectivity is only set to grow further, as more and more enterprises are digitalising their operations.

To support this burgeoning demand for network connectivity, the country’s te­le­com infrastructure needs to be augmented substantially. However, the scaling up of communications infrastructure is a major challenge owing to multiple issues involved in deploying additional tower sites, such as securing right-of-way (RoW) permissions from various authorities and the exorbitantly high costs of installation. In this context, small cells and aerial fibre have emerged as promising alternatives to expand the infrastructure backbone in areas where it may not be geographically possible or economically feasible to add more towers and base stations. The Tele­com Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has recently released a consultation paper that seeks to give a fillip to small cell and aerial fibre deployment in the country by exploring the potential of installing them on street furniture such as utility poles, billboards, lamp posts, traffic signals and bus stops.

tele.net takes a look at the regulator’s views on the advantages of small cells and aerial fibre in the Indian telecom infrastr­ucture space, the feasibility of using street furniture for their installation, and the issues raised for consultation…

Key advantages of small cells and aerial fibre over traditional infrastructure

Small cells are low-powered radio access nodes or base stations that provide a coverage range of up to a few hundred meters. These cells have an antenna installation height of, at most, 10 metres above the ground level, and consume low to medium power (5-400 W), thus making them suitable for providing localised coverage in households and high-density areas such as city centres and transport hubs. Compared to the traditional macrocells, small cells offer stronger cellular coverage and low la­tency, and have relatively lower deployment costs. Further, owing to their small form factors, small cells are suitable for be­ing mounted on existing public infrastructure, thereby saving on the costs involved in the erection of towers and other associated infrastructure.

Small cells are also expected to play a key role in the upgradation and expansion of networks for the roll-out of 5G services. Due to the constraints on traffic levels and sp­ectrum availability in lower spectrum ba­nds, 5G will use higher frequencies to provide strong signal strengths, consistent coverage, low latency and high capacity. However, higher frequency bands offer shorter coverage, as the airwaves in these bands are not able to penetrate through buildings and other dense obstacles. In order to overcome this challenge, 5G networks will have to be densified using a large number of small cells so as to support all kinds of 5G use cases and applications and at all locations. Even at locations whe­re coverage may not be a key issue, small cells can help in offloading of traffic from macro cell sites, since the latter has a limited data carrying capacity.

Meanwhile, a strong fibre backbone is a prerequisite for all digital initiatives. How­ever, RoW challenges and high costs of deployment have so far impeded the expansion of fibre networks in the country. In this context, aerial fibre, that is, the fibre dep­loyed overhead, offers several advantages over underground fibre. For one, it obviates the need to dig or create new ducts, as is the case with underground cables. Furth­er, it enables the reuse of existing poles to lay fibre cables and hence reduces installation costs. Aerial fibre is thus easier to manage and deploy, and hence is slowly emerging as a viable alternative to underground fibre. Given the role of fibre in providing high speed broadband connectivity, the use of aerial fibre is poised to increase in the next few years.

Leveraging street furniture for low-cost and fast deployment of small cells and aerial fibre

With little or no modifications, street furniture such as utility poles, billboards, la­mp posts, traffic signals and bus stops can be utilised to mount small cells as well as deploy aerial fibre. According to TRAI, the use of public street furniture will obviate the need to have greenfield deployme­nt of towers or poles for small cells and fibre, thus significantly reducing the capital expenditure and the time involved in rolling out networks and services. Further, the proximity at which these street resour­ces are already placed would ensure that each small cell deployment provides stro­ng signal strength and low latency in its own environment.

While the use of street furniture for installing small cells and aerial fibre holds promise, several issues need to be addressed before street resources could be optimally utilised for this task. First, given the fact that street furniture comes under the jurisdiction of various public and private authorities such as municipal bodies, smart city administrations, state and central government departments, railways, airports, ports, metros, and stadiums, a fast and cost-effective RoW process needs to be put in place to ensure that timely permissions are granted to telecom infrastructure companies for using street resources. Further, to make the street furniture suitable for deploying small-cell networks, it must be able to accommodate power, antennas, and associated fibre and other cabling equipment. This means that the administrative authorities will have to ensure the presence of electricity and proper backhaul facilities at any street furniture earmarked for deploying small cells. Moreover, for street furniture that is still under construction or in the planning stage, city authorities and telecom infrastructure companies need to come together to ensure that its design is apt for successful small cell deployments. Heat dissipation criteria, battery backup considerations and structural integrity concerns such as safe loading and wind resistance capacity are some of the issues that the authorities and infrastructure companies need to discuss for greenfield street resources.

Issues for consultation

Given the advantages of small cells and aerial fibre over traditional macrocells and underground fibre respectively, TRAI has initiated a consultation process to address the major challenges that are likely to emerge while using street resources for large-scale deployment of small cells and aerial fibre. In its consultation paper, TRAI has sought stakeholders’ views on the need for modification(s) in the existing RoW rules to facilitate the deployment of small cells on street furniture. Further, the regulator has asked stakeholders whether it should be mandated that specific public infrastructure such as municipality buildings, post offices, buses and railway stations have dedicated spaces that allow service providers to deploy macro/small cells. TRAI also intends to know if certain street furniture such as traffic lights and metro pillars can be earmarked for mandatory sharing between the controlling administrative authority and telecom service/in­frastructure providers to facilitate deployment of small cells and aerial fibre, and what the terms and conditions of such sharing should be. Further, the regulator has sought views on the need for standardising equipment or installation practices for small cell deployment on street furniture. It has also asked stakeholders to suggest an enabling framework that specifies the roles and responsibilities of various au­thorities, the approval process, levies of fees/penalties, and the coordination mechanism between the administrators overseeing street infrastructure and telecom infrastructure/service providers. Moreover, TRAI wants stakeholders to provide suggestions on incentivising the use of street furniture for small cell deployment, and the appropriate commercial arrangements between telecom companies and street furniture owners for the same.