This week Real Wireless is delighted to be participating at the Cambridge Wireless DAS and small cells event. However, while the technologies become more closely aligned, effective coverage and capacity in Europe continue to be of concern.

For example, a recent report by Global 5G.org prepared for the EC’s Communications Committee (COCOM) Working Group NBP/5G, looks closely at the role of small cells in densification. A dedicated activity within the proposed implementation plan is on small cells; its aim is to provide a study on deployment and regulatory aspects to help the EU and its member states identify the most effective way to lower the costs of deploying small cells and dense cellular networks.

Among the report’s preliminary findings are many that address questions such as power classes, RF compliance, simplified procedures for building permits for small cells, site access and local registration requirements. The document also identifies best practices emerging around the world.

As we at Real Wireless are only too aware, a number of issues relating to small cell deployments are still up in the air – not just power, size, standardisation and health, for example, but more foundational issues such as acquiring rights to deploy small cells on assets that are generally controlled by local authorities and city councils. The traditional arrangement between the service providers and the asset owners still needs to change to encourage investment in small cells. The apparently simple “you pay me rent and I will let you have access to my asset, with conditions” formula actually creates a complex and inefficient system that will deter the deployment of small cells.

But is this concern – and those of Global 5G.org – overstated? If the deployment of small cells were easier and, as a consequence, cheaper would there really be more of them out there? Most probably, yes. If MNOs knew that they could roll out a large number of small cells – even though a few would not be absolutely perfectly placed – as they would not be a big financial drain, then of course deployment speeds would be improved.

At the moment, however, in Europe it is both expensive and time-consuming to deploy small cells in most environments where capacity problems exist. So rather than embark on this tortuous journey with potentially minimal returns then why not, some operators may think, just either sweat your existing assets (macros) or go for the bigger prize, another macrocell?

They may have a point. Small cells are not the only narrative in town. Real Wireless is about to release a report within the 5G NORMA project, whose key objective is to develop a conceptually novel, adaptive and future-proof 5G mobile network architecture. This report shows that technologies in the macro, along with modest macro densification, and release of spectrum, will be sufficient for significant revenue-generating slices – like automotive – to be exclusively serviced in the macro layer.

It’s true that densification must happen in both macro and small cell layers. But how carriers densify may depend on what customer needs they perceive as priorities. Blanket dense coverage to enable Facebook and YouTube may not, initially, be major drivers for small cell rollout.

Of course these options will eventually run out so getting down to street level may be the only way but even then ease and cost aspects will be important. And who knows? Maybe the network slicing that 5G promises is one way of demonstrating the benefits to all the parties that can influence those cost, ease of access and deployment aspects: asset owners, regulators and others.

Thus, for 5G to truly succeed may require all parties to change over time. Service providers and vendors will need to make major changes to the way they relate to each other and to external industries to allow the depth of network access to vary across different industries. That means effective coverage and capacity may not require small cells alone. City councils will need to change their attitude to regulation and access to their assets if the citizen and industry benefits that 5G will be capable of providing are to be realised.

In short – there still may need to be major cultural change across a wide variety of industries for 5G to succeed.

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