Feature Article

May 30, 2014

Ramp-Up to Small Cells Brings New Players to the Business

As the nation’s major wireless carriers gear up to enhance capacity in high-traffic areas by using small cells, they’re not going it alone on infrastructure deployment. As occurred with traditional macrocell deployments, a host of companies have sprung up to install and operate virtually everything needed at the macrocell except the radio and transmission equipment.

Some players in this market are the same companies that deployed traditional cell towers. But there are also some newcomers – and some new rules of the game.

One of the new players is Zayo Group, a company best known as a fiber network operator. I talked recently with Jacob Fuller, director of Zayo Group’s small cell strategic product group, to learn more about why a company like Zayo is entering the cellular infrastructure market and to get a status update on what’s happening with small cells.

Zayo’s opportunity

“Where Zayo makes sense is where we have fiber,” explained Fuller. Where Zayo has deployed fiber, he said “we typically have agreements in place with municipalities.” That enables the company to quickly deploy fiber as needed to utility poles, to which Zayo also is bringing power and on which it is installing antennas, cabling and cabinets.

An AT&T or Verizon might have the same sort of access and agreements that Zayo has in areas where it is the incumbent landline carrier. But outside its home turf, it could make sense for one of those companies to use infrastructure from someone like Zayo. And neither Sprint nor T-Mobile has a landline business so Zayo could make sense almost anywhere in the U.S.

While declining to provide names, Fuller said Zayo already is working with some of the major national wireless carriers.

Some other fiber network operators also are pursuing opportunities in deploying and operating small cell infrastructure, as are some startup companies, Fuller noted.

What the carriers want

Zayo has been responding to requests for proposal from wireless carriers, and as Fuller put it, the RFPs have been “all over the map.”

Sometimes Zayo connects with the wireless carrier at a nearby macrocell. Other times the connection might be at the carrier’s point of presence or at a mobile switching center. While some carriers want Zayo to establish a VPN to transport traffic from small cells to the interconnection point, others ask for dark fiber. And while some carriers ask for small cells at specific locations, others just specify the areas they want to cover and ask companies responding to the RFP to recommend how to achieve the desired coverage.

Zayo’s small cell infrastructure deployments differ from those of traditional tower companies in one important way. While a traditional cell tower often serves multiple wireless carriers, Zayo’s small cell infrastructure is designed in a way that will only accommodate a single carrier.

Fuller said it would be possible to design small cell infrastructure in a way that could accommodate multiple carriers, but he said Zayo hasn’t opted for that approach. He noted that Zayo is installing a lot of its small cell infrastructure on utility poles and an individual pole is unlikely to be able to accommodate more than one company’s small cell infrastructure.

Moving forward

Perhaps it won’t be long before we see an official small cell launch from one of the major wireless carriers.

Although the carriers haven’t made official announcements, Fuller said he believes some of them already have small cells in place – and perhaps are conducting field trials prior to an official launch.

Edited by Maurice Nagle

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