Small Cells: Should Mobile Customers Foot The Bill?

The small cell market is growing fast as a solution for fixing mobile network shortcomings, but should end users pay for small cells instead of carriers?

December 9, 2013

4 Min Read
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The small cell market today is every bit as exciting as Wi-Fi was in its early days. At the same time, this interesting solution to poor mobile coverage tends to be mysterious to many networkers, and raises a lot of questions, namely: Who should be on the hook to pay for small cells and an improved network edge for mobile customers?

For those not familiar with this technology, a small cell is a short-range, low-power version of the cell towers we tend to associate with mobile carriers such as AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon. Getting a new tower or roof-mounted cell installed could take years of bureaucracy and huge expense, but popping up a small cell (femtocells are arguably the most common variant) is considerably easier and an order of magnitude cheaper.

Though thousands of small cells have already been deployed to bring better signal to spaces where the big towers don’t reach so well, service providers would like hundreds of thousands more lit up. This is where the discussion becomes more nuanced.

A number of experts project a staggering expansion of the small cell environment in the next few years as mobile devices continue to multiply. In one scenario, I could purchase an AT&T “signal booster” microcell for my home, plug it into my home network, and as long as it can find a GPS signal to properly register itself on the bigger carrier network, I’m done. Multiple phones in my home or small business just got better signal for voice and data, and AT&T didn’t have to put up a new tower to make my mobile life better. We both win, right? Well, not really.

Here’s why: I’m doing AT&T’s work for them. I’m paying for licensed mobile network equipment, providing the backhaul at my own cost, and paying a monthly fee to host the better network edge that I just built for AT&T.

In the enterprise or in campus environments, there's the same temptation to “fix it yourself” by self-installing small cells as there is in homes or small offices. I've installed small-cell gear (at my employer’s cost) to bring signal into challenged indoor areas. While it’s nice to be technically capable to do these self-installs, the costs rapidly add up and the support burden gets moved away from the carrier and brought in-house when you go it on your own.

[Read how Fluke's AirMagnet Spectrum ES streamlines the job of analyzing in-building cell signals in "Troubleshooting RF Problems: Fluke Launches Smart New Tool."]

This is one of the fundamental issues at the heart of the small cell paradigm: If the mobile network I subscribe to is weak in my home or office, I would expect the carrier to improve it for me or risk losing me as a customer. I’d expect a free microcell and some sort of credit for providing the backhaul, and no monthly fee for the microcell itself. At the same time, if new services -- such as a common number that rings for multiple phones or different data plans -- were enabled by the microcell, I’d certainly expect to pay for them, and I’d likely be a more loyal customer for having better mobile experience.

One school of thought in the debate over small cell business models involves a “push” philosophy -- if the carrier provides the small cell hardware, it betters the customer relationship and could lead to a number of upsells down the road. While this is easy to imagine, it could get ugly for the carriers when they may also need to perform RF survey work and cabling in support of small cell deployments on their dime in larger environments.

Many big, familiar network names are already in the small cell game, including Alcatel-Lucent, Broadcom, Cisco, Qualcomm, and Ruckus. These titans validate the expectations for the small cell market, and newcomers like SpiderCloud and Pole Wall illustrate how the small cell market is creating a new industry despite the debates on how to deploy the technology and who pays for it.

No doubt, small cells are a big story and one that's just beginning. I'll take a deeper technical look at the small cell market in future blog posts.

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