Why Small Cells will Win Big

Mobile devices need a lot more network capacity. Kevin Baughan reckons small cells are the way to provide it

It seems you can’t go anywhere these days without hearing about the increase in tablets and smartphones. But can you blame people? Nearly everybody has a smartphone now and tablets are fast catching up. And it’s not just in our personal lives that this is happening either. The business world’s beginning to embrace these devices with open arms as companies realise the benefits of remote working and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD).

So what does this all mean? Essentially employees are working more flexibly. It’s equipping staff with the connectivity that allows them to respond to things like customer enquiries in real time, meaning faster responses or helping to seal those crucial sales. We’re truly entering a connected world where staff will be able to access all their information and all the services they require on one device. But this does throw up some challenges.

small cells street furniture seoul - from solid blogData demand through the roof

The big one is where does the capacity come from, to service these devices? With the increase in smart device use, data demand’s going through the roof; mobile network operators are under increasing pressure to provide more consistent and reliable connections. This is where our work with small cell technology is helping to put forward a solution.

These shoebox sized pieces of kit are fitted to lamp posts or CCTV posts and takes the capacity that would’ve been used for a large number of customers and concentrates it over a much smaller area and a smaller number of customers (our picture shows small cells attached to some street furniture in Seoul – from the Solid blog).

The result? Mobile customers get the experience they bargained for when they bought their 3G or 4G data plans, no more interruptions to video streaming or access to the internet. Small cells can deliver better, more reliable mobile data in urban areas where there is a huge amount of connected devices being used.

Virgin Media business has been pushing ahead with this new technology over the past few years, with successful trials in Oxford Street, Newcastle and Bristol. We’ve also been awarded the wireless concessions for the cities of Leeds and Bradford.

These trials have led to deployment of free Wi-Fi services in two areas in both the Yorkshire cities. This is just the first step though. Our strategy is to use this deployment as a platform for innovation and inclusion, and then follow it up with a small cell hosting service that allows mobile operators to add capacity as they need it to meet the continued growth in demand.

The bonus of a small cells hosting service like ours, is that it’s technology neutral. It’s a simple turnkey service that allows a mobile operator to increase capacity to either its 3G or 4G LTE networks. The hosting service provides the backhaul, the street columns and the electricity supply; all the mobile operator needs is to provide the small cell and the location they want it in.

Is it that easy?

It all seems simple doesn’t it? But there are challenges with implementing this kind of technology. The biggest one would have to be backhaul. It’s important to have the high performance backhaul and suitable sites available to place the small cells, otherwise there’s no point in building the high capacity radio network.

There are other challenges, of course, notably the actual logistical challenge associated with this kind of deployment. The design of the equipment needs to be decided and finalised and then it needs to be installed across hundreds and thousands of locations. Think about trying to get planning permission if you wanted to install small cells in brand new sites. Not easy, even for something so small. What our partners really like about this technology is that it can be installed in existing assets with pre-agreed processes in place. No major disruptions. Just better connectivity. It’s really helped us to establish strong relationships with the authorities in the area, which has been crucial in introducing this technology.

So what’s the next step? Trials and deployment so far have been focused on the performance of individual small cells and small networks. The next stage would be to test their performance using short radio links to connect a group of small cells back to a fibre network, to be able to deliver an increase in capacity across a city.

These are the next steps towards creating small cell networks and helping to make the government’s super-connected cities a reality.

Kevin Baughan is director of wireless at Virgin Media Business.

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