Small Cell "As a Service?"

European service provider Colt is among service providers who believe a wholesale approach to small cell infrastructure makes sense. Virgin Business Media also is among service providers who believe creating a network of small cells and then selling use of that network to other mobile service providers, is a business opportunity.

There are any number of reasons why some mobile service providers might find the “buy rather than build” approach attractive. The cost of backhaul for a small cell will be a challenging exercise.

Whichever technology is used to backhaul small cells, it has to be cheap, "it has to be massively cheap," said Andy Sutton, Everything Everywhere principal architect, access transport. "We have a financial envelope for small cells and it's challenging."

Cost is so important because small cells will have relatively low usage compared to a macrocell and there will be lots of sites to support. Compared with macrocells, small cells quite frequently will cover distances of about 50 square meters or 538 square feet. That's an area about 23 feet by 23 feet.

One way to look at matters is that this is an area smaller than the range of a consumer's home Wi-Fi router. In other cases service providers might need to support coverage of 2 kilometers down to 200 meters. Traditional backhaul might well make sense where a small cell covers an area of 2 kilometers radius.

It will be substantially more challenging for cells covering 200 meters or less. Cells covering areas smaller than that will be much more challenged, in terms of how much a service provider can afford to invest, in terms of radio and associated facilities, or the recurring cost of leased bandwidth.  

Backhaul cost therefore becomes a key operating cost issue. A network services provider that owns lots of metro fiber, a cable operator or a telco might well be able to supply the affordable connections such small cells will require.

Entities that do not own such assets will find the cost of leasing backhaul, not to mention the costs of radios and site infrastructure, to be quite challenging as well.

For all those reasons, a well-developed wholesale small cell network could well make sense, especially for mobile service providers without extensive fixed network assets in an area.

Some will be unable to resist calling such services "small cell infrastructure as a service." Of course, historically, virtually all telecommunications offerings have been "services." So the term means almost nothing. The classic case of "communications as a product" are business phone systems.

Some speak of "communications as a service," which, when you think about it, is nonsensical. Communications always has been a service (with the exception of business phone systems). It is "communications as an app," or "communications as a feature," that is new.

In that sense, there is clear logic for small cell wholesale, in many cases. We just shouldn't get caught up in nonsensical nomenclature games.
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