It´s all about coverage - not capacity!

Coverage, not capacity, will make the small cell case.

By Caroline Gabriel - ReThink

Reliable signals everywhere - the need just as much technical and commercial innovation as high capacity. 

Capacity may be the exciting aspect of the mobile broadband agenda, enabling new services and driving uptake of new architectures such as small cells. But in many ways, dull old mobile coverage remains the real challenge in operators' constant quest to balance network investment with revenues.

Coverage doesn't generate shiny new revenues and an acceptable voice and data signal is rarely a profit generator (though it may be a reason for a user to churn). So it remains an issue - from the rural notspots which UK regulator Ofcom is, yet again, trying to force carriers to fill; to the large numbers of enterprises that complain their mobile-first agendas are scuppered by dropped calls. It is clear that a new model is required, with far more creative approaches to sharing infrastructure, including indoors, so that carriers can finally fill those holes profitably and without the need for a regulatory big stick.

There are two related issues here - enterprise and rural coverage. The business models are very different, but in both cases, small cells have been proposed as a strong solution. So far, actual uptake has been relatively slow, and while that was initially because carriers were waiting for technology milestones such as LTE, nowadays it is more often about the deployment costs.

In the enterprise space, operators risk losing a significant opportunity if they do not move more quickly. A study by RealWireless for the Small Cell Forum found that one of the primary reasons for enterprises to be disenchanted with their MNO was not the need for high speed data (which is often served by WiFi), but for adequate voice coverage.

However, there is a limit to how much most enterprises will pay, just to get the voice and data coverage which they see as their right once they sign a standard mobile deal. Operators need to find ways to sweeten their own business case. Some are developing added value services for which they can charge additional fees - in retail environments, for instance, those might harness the small cells' location awareness to support targeted promotions, as ip.access is enabling with its PresenceCell.

Others are looking to learn from the DAS (distributed antenna systems) sector, in which operators commonly share the cost of the coverage-oriented build-out (and access to the network for their subscribers), where they cannot charge the installation to the venue outright. Although there is a shared access technology standardized for small cells - MOCN (Multiple Operator Core Roaming) - this has seen limited adoption so far. However, hosted 'small cell as a service' approaches are gaining interest, and will only work as a business case if they support multiple MNOs.

An interesting approach comes from Cloudberry, which offers turnkey small cell deployments as a managed service, and claims it can achieve full integration with the operator's core network in just 16 hours in a live environment (down from several weeks using more traditional approaches). It connects the end points using its hosted Small Cells Gateway, enabling Cloudberry to take full ownership of the small cell network and handle all operations, as a service.