To meet continually rising demands for higher bandwidth and new services, mobile operators are deploying new cell sites at a rapid pace. Key priorities in these deployments are quality and efficiency, while reducing both hard and soft costs. These needs are driving changes in how cell sites are built. In this article, we’ll look at what’s changing in cell site architecture, why it’s changing and how a new generation of solutions is enabling mobile operators to meet their goals.
A History of Customization
Having built hundreds of thousands of cell sites in North America over the past 20 to 30 years, mobile operators have well-established methods and processes for how sites are built. In effect, each deployment is a custom project, with unique configurations at both the top and bottom of the tower.
Traditionally, at the bottom of the tower, the operator has a construction crew set a shelter — a process that includes clearing the site, building foundation forms and making large concrete pours. All of this must be inspected by local authorities at several steps along the way. The shelter is equipped with an HVAC system (typically two, 3-ton units) to cool the equipment inside. Finally, the operator has a crew deploy DC power plants, battery cabinets, equipment cabinets, a generator, telco equipment and integrated load centers (ILCs), and then connect them to each other, to the backhaul network and to commercial power.
At the top of the tower, crews mount an equipment frame and then deploy radios, antennas, diplexers, cabling and other equipment. Depending on the RF design and capacity of the tower, all of these components are deployed in non-standardized locations.
In many cases, the bottom of the tower deployment is completed before the top of the tower, so the process is linear, with tower-top crews having to wait until the tower-bottom crews are finished.
There are several drawbacks to this deployment method, however.
Quality: Because each site is customized, the quality of integration is in the hands of the site crews, who must execute complex configurations and designs in challenging, uncontrolled environments. Every crew is different; members may change from one week to the next, and the skill sets of different crews can vary widely. The level of quality and consistency are not assured. With the limited availability of skilled and professional install crews, and the pressure to complete more site builds, a new method must be introduced to allow the existing contractors to complete more builds with current resources.
Standardization and Integration
Over the past few years, manufacturers like CommScope have been pre-integrating cell site components in the factory to reduce costs and configuration errors at the jobsite. For example, CommScope has supplied completely pre-integrated tower tops including base station antennas, remote radio units, RF cabling and optical fibers, along with passive components like filters and combiners, shipped as a single unit. Instead of the traditional method of acquiring dozens of components, carrying them to the top of the tower and assembling them on-site, customers could install a single, pre-integrated solution that could be deployed much more quickly. Overall cell site quality was better because all of the connections were made and tested at the factory.
In 2012, some North American operators began looking for new systems and methods that could reduce the cost of building cell sites. These major mobile operators wanted to reduce deployment time along with operating expense (opex) and capital expense (capex). The answer again turned out to be pre-integration, this time with bottom-of-the-tower equipment. By building a steel platform at the factory and pre-integrating all of the components in it, field deployment time could be reduced to about four hours. Many of the other challenges of custom deployment could also be overcome. CommScope’s integrated platform deployment solution (IPDS) is one such product. There are several key benefits to this approach.
Lower capex — Products like the IPDS can cut deployment costs significantly. There are several areas of savings:
Lower opex — Operating costs are also lower because the product is standardized:
In addition to cost savings, pre-integrated platforms offer many other benefits, including:
As mobile operators’ network densification projects proceed, they will have to build hundreds of thousands of new cell sites. Rather than wasting time building customized iterations of cell sites, these operators should look to pre-integrated solutions to save time, reduce opex and capex, and ensure the highest quality.
Jared Haines is program manager for the integrated platform deployment solution program from CommScope and is responsible for unifying multiple internal and external partners to provide next-generation methods of cell site architecture implementation. Dale Heath is steel product line manager and is responsible for strategic planning, sales, marketing, product profitability and life-cycle management including design, development, changes, drawings, bills of materials, obsolescence, packaging, engineering and testing.