Small Cells Are Eliciting Lots of Interest

Carl Weinschenk
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Enterprise Mobility Management Myth Busters: Users vs. IT Reality

Telecommunications is a world of rapidly shifting priorities, technologies and business strategies. It’s always been that way, but the pace is escalating on a long-term basis.

Last week, IT Business Edge posted on the new importance of dark fiber. As the name indicates, dark fiber is unused capacity (“unlit” fiber) that may have been sitting idle in the ground or on the pole since the .com days or even earlier. The importance of this commodity is growing.

A bookend trend is small cell technology. The cellular network has traditionally used big towers that stand, imposingly, in neighborhoods. Small cells are a new layer that can provide a variety of functions and offer advantages such as improved connectivity within structures and the ability to offload connections from the expensive cellular network to the free Internet. Small cells can be integrated into the broader telecommunications network via dark fiber, so the two are often mentioned together.

This week, CommScope said that it is providing small cell technology to Sprint for its in-building LTE and managed Wi-Fi services. WirelessWeek says that the build-out will use the vendor’s S1000 small cells, which are optimized for small- and medium-sized businesses. No information on how many cells or the value of the contract was available. The company did say that the deployment will be in “high-traffic business locations in urban markets across the country.”

Small cells are a big deal. The first quarter earnings call for Crown Castle International and two related publicly traded companies (American Tower and SBA Communications) was focused, to a great extent, on small cells, according to a review on Seeking Alpha, which noted the interest of analysts in small cells:

Moving forward, CCI intends to report additional metrics on small cells, including ‘revenue per fiber-mile.’ The company expects to average ~$55 million per year of incremental revenues from this business segment. The rule of thumb would be a mix of 75 percent new nodes and 25 percent co-location. However, unlike counting the number of towers, well-located fiber with capacity is the main asset (and largest percentage of cost), not simply the nodes themselves.

Both small cells and an alternative approach, distributed antenna systems (DAS), are hot, according to RCR Wireless. The experts quoted in a feature suggest that small cells are more easily managed and seamlessly integrated than DAS. The impression, at least in this piece, is that the landscape is shifting quickly and is unpredictable, and that small cell approaches have the inherent physical and technical flexibility with which to deal with those changes.

One thing is clear: The amount and nature of traffic is making macro tower-only solutions obsolete. Small cells appear to be the best long-term bet to deal with demands that will continue to skyrocket, and shift in an unpredictable manner.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.

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