March 2, 2017
To address fast-growing customer demand for service that consumes large amounts of data fed over high-bandwidth connections, mobile network providers add small cells and distributed antenna system (DAS) networks to their macro networks.
Randall Schwartz, a senior analyst and consultant with Wireless 20/20, led a session about small cell connectivity at the Tower & Small Cell Summit in September 2016. He said small cells have an important role in helping mobile network operators to densify their networks.
A panelist in the session, Joey Friend, is director of core carriers at the Black & Veatch Telecommunications Division. As one of the company’s client directors, she works with the core carriers and fiber companies on small cells. Black & Veatch provides turnkey installations for small cells and macrosites. Friend said the company has been focusing on small cells because of the challenges some of its partners have been facing.
“Many newcomers we serve have never worked in the deployment side of the telecommunications business,” Friend said. “Black & Veatch has worked with many of the newcomers, training the jurisdictions about the processes required and training the public utilities about equipment approvals and inspections. Also, anticipating the flood of small cells and the need for accelerated rate of deployment, we developed a cost-efficient plan to deploy small cells as rapidly as our mobile operators need us to do.”
Capacity Versus Coverage
Black & Veatch has been building small cells and DAS mostly to help wireless carriers increase network capacity where the network already provides service, rather than extending service to new areas. “We’re building capacity for small cells, and we’re combining outdoor and indoor DAS for public venues and for college universities and their stadiums, along with the small cell deployments.”
RF Interference and Cost
Friend said two factors affecting small cell deployments are radio-frequency (RF) interference and cost.
When wireless carriers move their antennas from tall macrosite positions of 100 feet above ground level and higher down to structures 30 or 40 feet tall, RF interference from clutter rises. As an example, Friend said, a tractor-trailer truck passing through the right of way can affect wireless service — an effect that causes great concern.
Black & Veatch has performed many feasibility studies for clients regarding small cell deployment cost. This is because where it’s necessary to bring power to the sites, not to mention backhaul, small cells sometimes become surprisingly expensive. “We started doing feasibility studies to point out some of those costs so the surprise is not as great,” Friend said.
Carriers sometimes cancel plans for small sites when feasibility studies reveal high costs, which Friend said is a disappointment. “The more sites we have to build, the better,” Friend said. Further, when carriers balk at high-cost sites, she said, “we have to back up and decide which nodes or which sites are the most critical.”
With the process of acquiring sites for small cells, Friend said Black & Veatch is fortunate to be able to draw upon years of experience — not only with the telecommunications industry, but also its work with many jurisdictions and public utilities involving its other divisions, such as power and water, and special projects. She said many relationships already exist among those entities and Black & Veatch that the core carriers group uses.
“When small cells came along, we set up education sessions with the jurisdictions,” Friend said. “They had questions. They wanted to understand the differences between small cells and macros. What is the advantage of one over the other? What size of equipment? In that process, too, while we were educating and sharing drawings and specifications, they were also helping us through the process of zoning and permitting. It gave us an advantage to fast track over some of the others that were coming into the small cell industry.”
Friend said Black & Veatch also has site acquisition specialists, located in the jurisdictions, who know and understand most of the requirements. “From time to time, requirements change, and our specialists learn a few new ones. But they give us a big advantage. Our RF and field engineering teams are working together to identify RF nodes and put together as much information up front that our site acquisition team gathers from the jurisdictions, along with public utility equipment and inspection requirements.”
Information from each of the other teams reaches project management or construction management teams so that they have a better understanding of what they’re deploying. “It’s a unified effort,” Friend said. “Much of our advantage comes through the relationships that we have in helping us to overcome problems in most jurisdictions. Even so, there are some jurisdictions that even Black & Veatch has difficulty with. But it’s nice when you’re going to have a partnership with them.”
Small Cells and DAS
Turning to the challenges for deploying wireless systems indoors, Friend said indoor DAS has the same RF interference problems that small cells have. Yet, she said there is a big difference. “When you look at a DAS project, you look at it as a whole,” she said. “Depending on the complexity and size, the project can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to as much as a year.”
In comparison, Friend said the acceleration rate and volume needed for small cell deployments is huge. “For companies such as Black & Veatch, the comparison between macrosite and DAS deployment and small cell deployment is like a world in which you have to buy and prepare your food today — and then tomorrow and every day thereafter, you have to do the same,” Friend said. “The small cell acceleration rate is so great that it requires a robust logistics system; whereas, with DAS, the acceleration rate doesn’t add to the complexity. And then with small cells, there are other technical issues involving whether crews are working at night or in areas with restricted security.”Shared Infrastructure
Friend said that smart city initiatives are affecting how much wireless carriers want to or have to share small cell infrastructure. She said Black & Veatch installations reflect the combination of demands by cities and venues, and demands from different entities within cities.
“Small cell installation already has become very complex, and future installations will become even more complex,” Friend said. “But there’s a need for the city to share the capacity and the coverage, which will provide more and more benefit.”
Joey Friend, director of core carriers at the Black & Veatch Telecommunications Division. Photo by Don Bishop