When we talk about 5G and the implications for network densification, including the huge projected increase in the number of deployed small cells, one very important aspect is often ignored in the discussions, which are often focusing on the multi-gigabit capacities and interesting new wireless technologies on the horizon.
Even beyond the technical challenges of network planning, antenna design and wireless link budgets in a range of frequencies from sub-1 GHz to millimetre-wave, often the most challenging aspect of dense outdoor wireless network deployment is one that seems comparatively simple.
Site acquisition – simply finding an available, suitable physical location to mount the equipment, then reaching a leasing agreement with the property owner to do so – is a significant challenge that requires a lot of investment in time and money from the network operator. This investment is multiplied by the number of small cells they wish to deploy.
With network operators targeting 5x network densification by 2020, and 100x densification by 2030, this number of small cells to be deployed is set to rise dramatically, beginning in 2017. One major factor for the currently limited state of small cell deployment is the challenge of site acquisition.
Today, once a network operator has identified where they need to improve their network coverage, they or a contractor has to go practically (and in many cases, literally) door-to-door, manually trying to locate the owners of workable sites in the area that satisfy requirements for height, power and access to (preferably fibre) backhaul connectivity.
Imagine the process of doing this for a single small cell deployment. First, locating the property owner isn’t necessarily easy, considering the range of possible locations these devices may be mounted from buildings, to poles, to billboards and any other rigid structure with access to power.
Next, working out lease terms and pricing is more difficult than in the past; where a network operator may have knocked on the door and offered a bag of cash before, the vastly increasing number of small cells they need to deploy means they need to be far more judicious in terms of spend per site, making it harder to agree with a potential site owner.
These two combined can turn a deployment from a matter of weeks to many months, if it occurs at all. And that’s before potential delays with zoning and permitting come into play as well.
So, what can be done about this? We know there are network operators, primarily but not exclusively the major cellular carriers, who are very keen to lease property to deploy small cells to fulfil their network densification gaols and make sure their networks are ready for 5G and the challenges of 2020.
We also know that there are property owners who would appreciate the extra income from leasing their property to a network operator for use as a small cell site, but it can be difficult and time-consuming the locate them, get in contact and agree on a lease and terms.
SmallCellSite.com joins these two camps together via an online marketplace where property owners advertise their properties, and network operators can easily engage them for a leasing opportunity.
When I first saw the concept of the website and what it was trying to achieve, I immediately wished I’d thought of it first. It was launched in September 2016 going full live 2 months later, and it’s a simple concept, connecting property owners willing to lease with network operators looking to acquire sites. The name is a little misleading as it’s not restricted to small cells, but as small cells bring to mind the site acquisition challenge the most I think it works.
On opening the site, the user is first presented with a map view of the United States. Other countries are planned for future support, but currently this is it:
Alex Marcham | Network Architecture 2020
In these screenshots, I’m logged in as a network operator. If I zoom in somewhere near my house, I see the currently available properties for leasing:
When I click on one, I get a lot of immediate details about the location. I’ve edited the screenshot to remove the exact address and the individual details of the property, but I could see the following:
- Location Details
- Property Information
o Estimated Height (Invaluable when deploying any wireless equipment)
o Property Type (Billboard, pole, home, etc)
o Power Availability (Electricity comes in handy for these things!)
- Distance to Fibre
o Distance to Fibre (Results in a figure in metres)
o Allows the network operator to tick a box if they want fibre pricing for this property
- Pricing Information
o Varying levels of pricing for different types and sizes of equipment
Of these, the most interesting beyond the expected parameters of location and basic property information are availability of power, distance to fibre and pricing information.
After all, without access to power, the deployment of a small cell is either considerably more difficult and expensive for the network operator, or simply not possible. When choosing between multiple sites, this can be a clear differentiator and save a lot of wasted time. The same applies for the distance to fibre; the closer the better, and integrating a request for fibre pricing for the property is a smart move towards providing as close as possible to a turnkey solution for site acquisition.
Pricing is an interesting discussion by itself. SmallCellSite.com provides recommended prices to property owners based on location, ‘usefulness’ of the site and market conditions, attempting to give both parties involved a fair deal that is likely to close. The property owner can also override this with their own pricing if they choose.
SmallCellSite.com functions as the intermediary between property owner and network operator from the standpoint of leasing contract and related agreements, and the site itself generates revenue by taking a percentage of lease payments, which varies depending on several factors from individual owners and operators to market conditions.
From what I’ve seen, this is a reasonable trade-off as the site and team are enabling new business opportunities much more efficiently than is otherwise possible for both property owner and network operator by themselves.
Now I’ve added that site to my first project. A project can (and should) contain multiple sites, with any relevant notes added to speed up communication between the network operator and the SmallCellSite.com team who receive the request when the project is submitted.
I’ve now submitted the project, but not before I ticked the box indicating I am interested in fibre pricing for this property. SmallCellSite.com have established relationships with fibre network operators throughout the United States, to allow them to provide data connectivity to the physical sites as well as the physical sites themselves to network operators. This is a nice touch of integration that removes another headache in terms of site acquisition. Of course, if the network operator has their own fibre assets available or wishes to use wireless backhaul, they simply don’t tick the box.
A few hours after I submitted my test project, I got an email from the SmallCellSite.com team responding to my query with an email written by an actual human, who I felt a little bad for telling that my project was just a test run for this article. But, it gave me confidence that the team is geared up to respond to queries quickly, as they didn’t know it was me who had submitted it.
Pros and Cons
I like SmallCellSite.com a lot as a concept, and especially the integration with detailed property data, Google Maps and partnerships with fibre providers. From the perspective of a network operator, it’s easy to see there is significant value here, and the customer list including some household-name network operators is proof of this.
What would make SmallCellSite.com more valuable for each party involved?
Currently, the site tracks 100,000 property assets across the United States, with a goal of 1,000,000 by the end of 2017. Obviously, the more property assets accessible via the site, the more valuable it becomes to network operators
In the future, I would love to see the site expand internationally; site acquisition is a global problem (just think about deploying a small cell network as part of a network densification strategy in London, or Tokyo) and although there is complexity for the SmallCellSite.com team in arranging all the different lease terms in those countries, that would make the site much more valuable.
We’ve covered plenty of pros so far; what are some cons I can see with the site or concept today?
An expanded range of backhaul partners, including wireless backhaul options on top of fibre partners would be a useful capability; particularly in urban areas which are the prime deployment case for small cells in particular, wireless backhaul has been effectively used for a number of years.
Second, another area of development that would be useful is assistance with zoning and permitting, which still must occur alongside the site acquisition process. Although it may not be feasible for SmallCellSite.com to actually handle that process for the network operator, detailed instructions based on the location of the property, type of network deployments and other factors would be a great help to network operators who are frequently lost trying to navigate the bureaucracy involved in this process with the various bodies and agencies.
Even if the national cellular network operators are familiar with these processes, they aren’t the only network operators looking to deploy equipment in unorthodox locations; IoT and IIoT devices for example are a prime candidate for this service, the operators of which may not have this expertise and not know what to expect in terms of overhead, process or time.
On that point, it is fair to mention however that the parent company of SmallCellSite.com, TeleWorld Solutions, does offer services to handle zoning, permitting, engineering and other services, and these could be requested by using the notes section when submitting a project. I have not personally used these, and think that having some more information in this area integrated into the site would be beneficial, but these services certainly appear to be an option and allow a network operator to use SmallCellSite.com for just site acquisition, or go all the way to a turnkey project.
On the whole, the concept and execution of SmallCellSite.com looks pretty good. It definitely appears to address an unfilled need in the market that will only increase in importance in the next few years leading up to 2020. There are areas that could definitely be improved, but as the site is less than 6 months old I’m reticent to criticise it too harshly at this point.
The usefulness of the site long-term revolves around how many property owners they can get involved; interest from network operators certainly seems to be there already, so it’s a case of matching supply with demand. I am hopeful that as success stories come out from property owners about their experience with the site, more properties will be added to the site; but, this is crystal ball territory, and we’ll have to see how it develops through 2017.
If you’re a property owner with some assets that you think might be underutilised, take a look at the pricing information on the site and see whether that floats your boat. As a network operator looking to deploy equipment in unorthodox sites, it’s absolutely worth a look as long as your intended deployment is within the United States today.
Having trouble with site acquisition, or have you tried SmallCellSite.com? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments below or email me at email@example.com.
Disclosure: I was not paid or incentivised in any way by SmallCellSite.com or any other party for this blog post, and the opinions here are mine alone and do not represent those of any other party.