Globally, 5G deployments are picking up pace. More than 40 per cent of the world’s population is expected to be connected with 5G by 2024, according to Ericsson. India too is set to witness a number of 5G field trials in 2019. 5G networks will support peak data rates, exponentially higher than 4G/long term evolution (LTE). 5G will have 1,000 times higher bandwidth per unit area. To support such features, denser and more reliable networks will be needed. Small cells will set the foundation for such networks.
Initial small cell deployments in the Indian telecom market began with 3G, primarily in residential areas. 4G and LTE deployments, which followed soon after 3G, gave a significant push to small cell deployments. During the launch of 4G, small cells were largely deployed for capex optimisation and network densification. In the 5G era, operators will deploy small cells to achieve more reliable coverage, increase spectrum efficiency, and improve network performance and capacity. These benefits will help lower the total cost of ownership for operators.
Small cells and 5G
5G expansion will be undertaken by deploying radios in new bands such as the sub-6 GHz range, mmWave frequency bands and existing LTE bands. Software enhancements can help rapidly upgrade existing LTE bands to support 5G services. mmWave holds tremendous potential in terms of speed, capacity and latency. Small cells are critical for deploying 5G networks in mmWave bands. This is because mmWave cannot be deployed via a macro network owing to its propagation characteristics, which restrict its ability to travel far and penetrate structures and obstacles. Small cells help fully leverage mmWave deployments.
Fixed wireless access
Currently, almost half of all households lack access to a fixed broadband connection. This is set to change given the speed and capacity of advanced 4G technologies and their subsequent evolution to 5G. The provision of broadband services to homes and small- and medium-sized enterprises using fixed wireless access (FWA) has emerged as an economically viable opportunity. Given the high density of households in India and the growing availability and uptake of fixed broadband alternatives, FWA has immense scope in India. Small cells can be leveraged for the densification of networks, when necessary, to enhance FWA.
Small cells have been recognised as an ideal solution for delivering 5G connections in India. They can be used to manage traffic in the busiest and most crowded of locations such as stadiums and train stations. According to a survey conducted by Ovum, Indian telecom operators are planning to deliver new 5G enterprise services to live sports and e-sports event organisers. Sporting events such as the Indian Premier League are being viewed as an opportunity to create new enterprise services based on 5G. Indian operators have already experienced small cell deployment at IPL venues in 2018.
The main concern of operators regarding new 5G services pertains to the delivery of the required levels of capacity and connectivity to support live HD video. Providing good indoor coverage within stadiums was also cited as a major challenge. According to operators, the most effective solution is small cells as they are capable of providing more capacity, increasing flexibility and enhancing the user experience.
Deployments and partnerships
Telecom operators in India have been deploying small cells in partnership with equipment vendors. Demand for small cells can be mainly attributed to the rise in indoor small cell deployments. The enterprise segment is driving the demand for indoor small cell shipments. Small cell deployment for outdoor coverage is also happening at a steady pace. According to IHS Markit, indoor deployments will grow at a faster rate than outdoor deployments till 2022. However, revenue from outdoor deployments will be higher because such installations are more expensive as they offer new 4G features such as higher-order multiple input multiple output (MIMO) and 256QAM.
Reliance Jio has partnered with Samsung Networks and Airspan to deploy small cells for its network. In February 2017, Airspan announced the integration of its small cells with Reliance Jio’s LTE network. By August 2017, the operator had deployed over 100,000 small cells against its target of 150,000 small cells to build a smart network. Mathew Oommen, president, network, global strategy and service development, Reliance Jio, stated, “By leveraging a smart HetNet model supported and orchestrated by a cloud-centric SON framework, Jio and Airspan have completely changed the traditional macro-centric deployment models and enabled Jio to proactively and rapidly address data demand through targeted deployments. Together, we have been able to innovate on products and solutions that have fundamentally disrupted cost and service models, ensuring that Jio’s self-healing HetNet will be able to seamlessly transition to 5G.”
Meanwhile, Samsung Networks is undertaking large-scale deployment of small cells for Jio to improve indoor coverage. The move is aimed at increasing Jio’s network coverage to 99 per cent. Interestingly, in 2014, Reliance Jio acquired stake in Airspan and in June 2014 Oommen joined the latter’s board of directors. Subsequently, in 2018, it acquired Radisys to ensure the continuity of software support for Airspan. These strategic acquisitions allowed the telco more control over its deployments and plan for long-term technology and infrastructure enhancements.
Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea are also focusing on enhancing indoor coverage and network quality through small cell deployments. As of February 2019, Vodafone Idea has deployed over 4,000 massive MIMO small cells and time division duplex (TDD) sites across Delhi NCR and plans to increase it further in the future.
A major challenge at the moment is that in the run-up to 5G, the industry risks ignoring 4G, which is still a predominant technology in the country. 4G is a much more mature technology with significant headroom for growth and advancement. While the commercial launch of 5G may be nearing, the initial roll-out will be in select pockets and scaling up across the country will take a few more years. Therefore, it can be reasonably assumed that in the medium term 4G will continue to play an integral role in India. To this end, compromising on 4G small cell innovations ,and research and development investments will not be a prudent step.
Another challenge is the reluctance of the government to provide access to street furniture for the deployment of small cells. The lengthy and cumbersome authorisation processes and exorbitant fees charged by landowners for granting site access are major barriers. Further, the lack of shared investment models increases the financial burden on telcos, which are already struggling with poor financials. The issue of backhaul will also need to be resolved, which can either happen through an extensive fibre network or by the tried-and-tested micro and mmWave solutions.
The way forward
Going forward, considering the volume of small cells that are required to be deployed, it is crucial to develop a working neutral-host model wherein resources are shared by multiple telecom operators. Further, there needs to be a deliberation on shared small cell investment models in order to restructure the cost burden of telcos. Educating landowners to look beyond short-term gains in the form of rent and fees, and adopt a longer-term holistic view of accruing benefits will help streamline site acquisition.
The deployment of private and commercial networks for enterprises and businesses is yet another opportunity. Small cells are also gaining traction in high-profile residential buildings, with increasing demand for good performance. Residents are even warming up to the prospect of paying for the service. Leading telecom equipment vendors have launched a few 5G, small cell products, and more such products will be introduced as the country transitions into the 5G era.