When we talk about 5G and network densification, including the huge projected increase in the number of small cells, one important aspect is often ignored. Beyond the challenges of network planning, antenna design and other issues in a range of frequencies from sub-1 GHz to millimetre-wave, often the most challenging aspect of network deployment is one that seems simple.
Site acquisition – finding a suitable physical location for equipment, then agreeing a lease with the property owner – is a significant challenge that requires investment in time and money by the network operator, multiplied by the number of small cells being deployed.
With network operators targeting 5x network densification by 2020, and 100x densification by 2030, the number of small cells to be deployed will rise dramatically, beginning in 2017. One major reason for the limited number of small cell deployments today is site acquisition.
Today, once a network operator has identified a deployment area, they go practically (and often literally) door-to-door, manually locating owners of sites satisfying requirements for height, power and access to (preferably fibre) backhaul connectivity.
Imagine doing this for one deployment. First, locating the property owner isn’t necessarily easy, considering the range of possible structures used from buildings, to poles, to billboards.
Next, leasing is more difficult than in the past; the vastly-increasing number of small cells means network operators need to be more judicious in spend per site, making it harder to agree pricing.
These factors can stretch deployment from weeks to months, if it occurs at all. And that’s before potential delays with zoning and permitting come into play.
So, we know there are network operators, primarily (though not exclusively) cellular carriers, who want to lease property to deploy small cells; and we know there are property owners who want extra income from leasing.
SmallCellSite.com joins these parties together via an online marketplace where property owners advertise their properties, and network operators can easily engage them for a leasing opportunity.
When I saw SmallCellSite.com, I wished I’d thought of it first. Launched in September 2016, it’s a simple and well-executed concept. It’s not restricted to small cells, but as small cells exemplify the site acquisition challenge it’s a fitting name.
First, the user sees a map of the United States:
Zooming in near my house, I see the current available properties:
On clicking, I see property details:
- Location Details
- Property Information
- Estimated Height
- Property Type
- Power Availability
- Distance to Fibre
- Distance to Fibre
- Request Fibre Pricing
- Pricing Information
- Levels of pricing for different types and sizes of equipment
Of these, the most interesting are availability of power, distance to fibre and pricing information.
Without access to power, small cell deployment is troublesome. When choosing between properties, this is a clear differentiator which saves wasting time. The same applies for distance to fibre; integrating a request for fibre pricing is a smart move towards providing a turnkey solution, and SmallCellSite.com have established relationships with fibre network operators nationwide.
SmallCellSite.com recommends prices to property owners based on location, site characteristics and market conditions, attempting to create a fair deal that will close. The property owner can override this if they wish.
SmallCellSite.com functions as intermediary between property owner and network operator for leasing contracts and related agreements, and takes a percentage of lease payments. This is reasonable for enabling new business opportunities much more efficiently than is otherwise possible for both parties.
The site is now in a project. A project can contain multiple sites, with notes added if needed.
Finally, the project is submitted.
A few hours after submitting the project, I got an email from the SmallCellSite.com team responding to my project. The team is geared up to respond quickly, which bodes well.
Pros and Cons
SmallCellSite.com is a useful service, especially its integration of property data, Google Maps and partnerships with fibre providers. For a network operator, it’s easy to see significant value here, and the customer list includes household names.
The site tracks 100,000 properties, and targets 1,000,000 in 2017. The more properties, the more valuable SmallCellSite.com is. I would also love to see the site expand internationally; site acquisition is certainly a global problem.
An expanded range of backhaul partners, including wireless would help; wireless small cell backhaul has been effectively used for several years.
Assistance with zoning and permitting, which must occur alongside the site acquisition process, would also be useful. Although it may not be feasible for SmallCellSite.com to handle the paperwork, instructions based on location and deployment characteristics would be a great help to network operators trying to navigate the bureaucracy involved.
Even if cellular carriers are familiar with these processes, they aren’t the only ones deploying equipment; there is value for IoT too, the operators of which may not have site acquisition expertise.
However, the parent company of SmallCellSite.com, TeleWorld Solutions, offers services to handle zoning, permitting and other services which can be requested when submitting a project. I think that more information integrated into the site would help, but these services allow SmallCellSite.com to be used for just site acquisition or turnkey deployment.
SmallCellSite.com addresses an unfilled need in the market that will increase in importance leading up to 2020. There are areas that could be improved, but at under 6 months old it is doing well.
Its usefulness long-term depends on how many property owners 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, 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, take a look at the pricing information on the site. As a network operator looking to deploy, it’s absolutely worth a look today.
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