Vodafone on the evolution of small cells and the practicalities of deployment

The time is ripe for towercos to enter the small cells market and diversify their offering

Read this article to learn:

  • Crowd cells as a flexible approach to connectivity
  • How customer demand is driving the increased use of small cells
  • What effect 5G will have on the deployment of small cells
  • Why towercos are yet to move into the small cells space
  • How framework agreements are changing the rollout of small cells in municipal areas

Founded in 2008, the Vodafone Procurement Company S.a.r.l. (VPC) is responsible for managing the company’s supply chain. In this interview, Carlos Marin, Principal Category Manager, Radio Small Cells & New Technologies, and Nikolaos Antoniou, Principal Category Manager, Property Management Services within VPC, discuss with TowerXchange the increasing relevance of small cells in the global mobile industry and its evolution offering new dynamic ways to support connectivity.

TowerXchange: Please introduce yourselves, your role at VPC and your background.

Carlos Marin, Principal Category Manager, Radio Small Cells & New Technologies, Vodafone Procurement Company:

I did my degree in telecommunications engineering and I have twenty years of experience working in the telecoms industry in the areas of technology and procurement. Over the last eight years I have been working for the Vodafone Procurement Company in Luxembourg, managing the sourcing of diverse radio access technologies and projects – including the small cells portfolio – for Vodafone.

Nikolaos Antoniou, Principal Category Manager, Property Management Services, Vodafone Procurement Company:

I come from an Engineering background and I have been working in the telecoms sector for almost twenty years. My main area of expertise is in the network deployment area, both in terms of technology and procurement. My VPC role and category is the handling of the intangible part of the Access Network assets. This entails the end2end lifecycle management of Cell Site Leases (from acquisition until disposal).

TowerXchange: What has been your experience of selecting and deploying small cell, microcell and DAS infill and capacity solutions, both indoor and outdoor?

Nikolaos Antoniou, Principal Category Manager, Property Management Services, Vodafone Procurement Company:

The basic requirement in terms of deployment is to identify what you need to do strategically and then decide the location(s). Once the strategy is in place then the location availability is absolutely crucial. If you secure this aspect – and that’s what we do strategically here – you then have to hand over to the product line, which is Carlos’ area of expertise.

Carlos Marin, Principal Category Manager, Radio Small Cells & New Technologies, Vodafone Procurement Company:

From the procurement area I manage the selection of suppliers and commercial agreements for the deployment of small cells in Vodafone markets, including the equipment and implementation services. Small cells are a dynamic portfolio, requiring the best possible understanding of the end-customer needs as well as the technology, and moving towards 5G, anticipating the trends and new possibilities of radio small cells such as crowd cells.

Crowd cells are small cells which will improve not just the performance of the network for the primary user(s), but also the coverage for other users around. In order to maximise deployment location flexibility wireless backhaul is integrated within the solution. First deployments will be in fixed locations, and in a second step going mobile – we are examining the potential of integrating crowd cells into vehicles, which will reinforce the areas where people ‘crowd’. Ultimately, using the ‘crowd’ to source the deployment options in future – hence the name.

TowerXchange: We’d like to ‘get inside the operators’ heads’ as they evolve the heterogeneous layer of their networks; what motivates an MNO to invest in these distributed network solutions? In broad terms, how do they fit into planning the topography of a modern mobile broadband network?

Nikolaos Antoniou, Principal Category Manager, Property Management Services, Vodafone Procurement Company:

The best way to look at this is through a top down approach. The main driver of an MNO is to have sustainable and fair profitability. To achieve this, you need to have a satisfied customer base and achieve excellence in services delivered to this customer base. To be able to provide top class service to your customers, you need to have a Network that provides that ‘A’ class service “anywhere” – this includes the small cell deployment.

In order to do this you have to keep improving your offering. Three years ago, 2Mbps was a good speed, now it’s just not satisfactory. In order to cover this increase in demand for capacity you have to acknowledge Moore’s Law – where you have to improve continuously. And with current and future technology, operators recognise that one way to improve is through small cells.

Carlos Marin, Principal Category Manager, Radio Small Cells & New Technologies, Vodafone Procurement Company:

Adding to what Nikolaos just said, the hunger for more data and new services will increase the challenges to provide an adequate level of quality in urban areas, particularly indoor. The arrival of 5G with new spectrum in high frequencies, and the development of Smart Cities and Internet of Things will magnify these challenges.

The centre of gravity of a network will move away from large geographical areas to specific locations, and from outdoor to indoor, as network densification grows. The real challenge will be not just to deploy small cells in large numbers, but to integrate them closer to us and to suit our surrounding environment, wherever we are. This will not yet be apparent to members of the public because we are continuing to invest in the macro network to enhance and expand the capacity. However in the near future, and specifically with the advent of 5G, it will be more apparent of the need to densify the networks using small cells.

TowerXchange: Why would an MNO self-deploy small cells rather than work with a third party distributed network operator or towerco to provide these solutions on a neutral host basis?

Nikolaos Antoniou, Principal Category Manager, Property Management Services, Vodafone Procurement Company:

Actually, the goal of an MNO would be to have up and running in their service a layer of small cells. There is no specific preference to self-deploy or to buy from a towerco. An MNO will do what makes business sense in terms of both cost and speed to market. The initial tendency for MNOs to self-deploy in the past was there because towercos were not ready to provide this service. It is all a matter of availability and performance. Business-wise, there is no strict rule as to why MNOs should pursue self-deployment.

In my opinion, the business case for towercos to support MNOs in deploying small cells is extremely strong. But it would require towercos to move beyond their traditional legacy activities to developing a partnership approach with MNOs. Some towercos are more mature and ready to embrace this partnership approach, and some are not there yet.

the business case for towercos to support MNOs in deploying small cells is extremely strong. But it would require towercos to move beyond their traditional legacy activities to developing a partnership approach with MNOs

TowerXchange: How have small cells, microcell and DAS solutions evolved in the last five years?

Carlos Marin, Principal Category Manager, Radio Small Cells & New Technologies, Vodafone Procurement Company:

Beyond improvements on capacity and form factors, five years ago all these solutions were mostly used to provide the coverage or capacity in specific areas with weak signals. Nowadays, we have a much more comprehensive portfolio of small cells for tailored solutions and with the capacity to improve the network in very precise location beyond the possibilities of using only macro base stations. This is enabling new services like HD video or cloud office and providing superior quality for larger number of users in hot-spots.

TowerXchange: Let’s talk about deployment. How do you drive a small cell rollout to scale – who are the municipal and real estate stakeholders you need to engage with and how do you build those relationships?

Nikolaos Antoniou, Principal Category Manager, Property Management Services, Vodafone Procurement Company:

One of the critical factors is time to market. So the key activity is always to have framework agreements that cover a whole geographical area and not resort to traditional negotiations on a site by site basis. For example, when it comes to covering a much bigger area, it makes sense to create framework agreements with worldwide real estate companies or global players in innovative areas. We have a framework agreement with the biggest outdoor advertising agency in the world and thanks to this agreement, we now have access to more than 150,000 locations globally. When one of our MNOs or Partner Market decides to utilise this agreement, it means it’s a lot easier than making the individual acquisitions themselves.

Another aspect is to make framework agreements with large corporations in the fast moving consumer goods area – corporations that have many points of presence. Supermarket chains and Banks are a good example.

Lastly, we need to engage with the municipal authorities of a given country. This is more stringent because you have to create a longer-term relationship which has to be reciprocal. In a nutshell, we have to skip the one to one acquisition process and transfer our efforts, focus and resources to creating framework relationships and agreements.

TowerXchange: What will be the requirements for small cells when 5G is launched?

Carlos Marin, Principal Category Manager, Radio Small Cells & New Technologies, Vodafone Procurement Company:

With 5G, I expect small cells to provide far more capacity and integrate multiple frequency bands while keeping an adequate form factors and being more energy efficient. They will be easier to deploy, including ‘plug & play’ configuration, and as roll-out scales the architecture of the network might evolve together with the macro into Cloud RAN solutions and SON (Self Organising Networks) advanced capabilities.

Small cells may create also more business opportunities facilitating new services for end users, as well as Managed Services for companies to support and maintain all the infrastructure, adding new requirements to the list.

TowerXchange: It’s often said that fibre connectivity, or alternative backhaul solutions, are critical to small cell rollouts – to what extent have you found that to be the case?

Carlos Marin, Principal Category Manager, Radio Small Cells & New Technologies, Vodafone Procurement Company:

Fibre is extremely important. You see, it’s like driving a fast car. To enjoy it you need a powerful and safe car as well as a road in adequate conditions. To carry on with the analogy, the road would be the backhaul of the small cell solution. However, we need to differentiate what each customer needs. Solutions for residential use are extremely different in terms of their requirements to enterprise customers, or public ones to be deployed in stadiums or other high footfall areas.

When we are deploying we look at connecting to fibre as first option. Where not possible, we do have other adequate solutions that work on wireless backhaul but even in these cases, our goal is to be able to upgrade to fibre over time.

TowerXchange: How do the energy and maintenance requirements of small cell, DAS and microcell deployments compare to the typical backup power and maintenance regimes required at the macro network level?

Carlos Marin, Principal Category Manager, Radio Small Cells & New Technologies, Vodafone Procurement Company:

Backup power solutions in macro-sites are an absolute must. For small cells that operate under the coverage of a macro-site, generally it won’t be as critical because the macro-site can still guarantee a minimum service. And I remark generally, because there will be many cases of small cells, both public and private domains, that will require small cells to be up and running to avoid congestions. Or if we think about using small cells deployed quickly with drones to respond to emergency situations, which is a study case today, those small cells will require also an autonomous power source. So small cells do need some level of power backup.

My ambition is to have zero traditional energy consumption in the future by implementing renewable energy solutions on sites hosting small cells

My ambition is to have zero traditional energy consumption in the future by implementing renewable energy solutions on sites hosting small cells.

Nikolaos Antoniou, Principal Category Manager, Property Management Services, Vodafone Procurement Company:

From the maintenance point of view, we do not really see many differences to the maintenance we perform on the legacy network. There might be a few small variations on the required skill-set in light of the nature of the product since small cells are more compact and less modular.

TowerXchange: Does the addition of small cells into future networks reduce the need for macro sites?

Carlos Marin, Principal Category Manager, Radio Small Cells & New Technologies, Vodafone Procurement Company:

I don’t see any reduction on the number of macro sites and actually we are going to require more, particularly street assets in urban areas. Macro sites will continue to be the foundation of mobile networks but macro alone will not be sufficient. We will need further densification through small cells deployed in street assets and indoor locations.

TowerXchange: Who is best placed to deploy and manage small cell networks – MNOs, towercos, fibercos, or specialist network companies? How do you see the current state of the ecosystem in different regions?

Nikolaos Antoniou, Principal Category Manager, Property Management Services, Vodafone Procurement Company:

Like I said before, there isn’t a perfect recipe and it all comes down to creating the right mix of expertise, interest and open approach. It is our belief that partnering with the right players in each relevant market is key.

In markets where MNOs are very strong, they could easily take the lead in the deployment process. Whereas towercos could become the ideal partner where they have greater footprints and a higher degree of expertise.

We should always keep in mind that there’s always something to be gained by working together and much to be lost by standing against each other. This is something we want to take to the market and include in our small cells strategy.

Carlos Marin, Principal Category Manager, Radio Small Cells & New Technologies, Vodafone Procurement Company:

The suitability of a given solution depends on many factors, including the structure and architecture of a city and the deployment challenges that city presents.

For example, even we tend to think first on dense populated and high traffic areas for small cells, in emerging countries we have a strong case to deploy small cells to create coverage in uncovered areas. So we are even using small cells as ‘macro sites’ when a macro site isn’t a viable solution.

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