Small cell cost and planning delays ‘may slow down 5G rollout’
Bureaucratic delays in getting permission to install small cells may derail the rollout of 5G mobile services, says a new report.
Mobile operators will need at least 10 times the number of outdoor urban cells for 5G as they use today for 4G, and this may “force some operators to delay or scale back their plans”, says the report.
Many of them recognise that they will need to densify their networks for 5G, says the report, published by the Small Cell Forum (SCF) and 5G Americas, an industry lobby group. Dense networks will be needed for internet of things (IoT) and other services that will be enabled by 5G.
“The most important barriers … relate to uncertainty about total cost of ownership,” says the report. “Many of those uncertainties, in turn, relate to site, equipment and backhaul costs. Four of the top 10 barriers relate to these aspects of densification, with 47% saying that the cost and availability of suitable sites is a top three challenge. In addition, backhaul costs, site approvals and equipment approvals are all top three issues for between one-fifth and one-third of carriers.”
The report says that SCF and 5G Americas “believe that regulatory change at national, state and city level is required to reduce the time and cost of deploying small cells at scale”.
If these challenges are not addressed in time, “many of the benefits which governments, regulators and cities hope to derive from 5G – such as smart city platforms and the industrial IoT – will be severely compromised”.
The report uses data from Rethink Technology Research that 32% of the costs incurred by a mobile network operator (MNO) – the largest sector by far – already come from site and fibre backhaul fees.
“Many operators in developed mobile economies have set targets to reduce absolute opex by 25% or more by 2022. Given the increase in site numbers in a typical 5G network, that will entail reducing per-site opex costs by an even greater amount. A consistent, quick and cost-effective process to gain approval for small cell sites, and then deploy those access points, would make a significant contribution to the goal,” says the report.
“This only gets worse as operators start to densify and build larger numbers of small base stations, since each one carries that site and backhaul cost. If an MNO wants to deploy 10 outdoor small cells per macro, it would need the costs to be well below 10% of those of a macro to make the cost case for densification – but that is not yet true.”
The average densification project will involve 100-350 cells per square kilometre by 2020, says the report. It warns of a “wasted opportunity [that] will have a significant impact on the performance of operators and their suppliers, as they move into 5G” if regulations delay the installation of small cells.
It points out that 5G will be able to use spectrum bands above 20GHz – but they will have shorter range, needing “dense small cell networks, outdoors or indoors”. It adds: “They will lend themselves to hyper density, but while that will provide a large leap in capacity, it will also require large numbers of sites with power and backhaul.”
It warns there is a “fragmentation of the regulatory landscape”, with “different authorities and stakeholders which may be involved in approving the site and equipment for just a single small cell”. This means that “if every cell has to go through a process which may take up to two years to complete, the cost and scalability of the network is severely compromised”.
It warns about “power source availability, backhaul connectivity options, special environmental conditions [and] local zoning requirements” as well as the impact of rental fees and local taxes. “Each pole attachment can cost $400 in a costly location like New York City.”
The SCF and 5A Americas report recommends that mobile operators “have to form new partnerships with site owners such as utility power companies in urban cities, rural authorities, city and local government agencies, private building owners and communities” in order to streamline the process and reduce the cost.