Network densification through the deployment of next-generation small cells helps deliver micro capacity and coverage. Small cell rollouts are therefore key to increasing capacity, improving coverage and energy efficiency while reducing radiation. Small cells also improve capacity in rural areas, thereby helping to reduce the digital divide by bringing much-needed coverage to agricultural communities and small businesses. As such, small cells are a critical component of 5G networks.
The transition towards hyper-dense 5G networks underlines the need for urgent regulatory and policy innovations backed by empirical evidence from early deployments to ensure timely dense cell deployments with envisioned 5G rollout roadmaps.
Europe has a key role to play in its ambition, not to be the first, but the best in terms of 5G ollouts, with a high priority on vertical industries and smart cities. To fully realise the benefits of small cell deployments, steps need to be taken to lower barriers highlighted in the Global5G.org white paper: How Europe can accelerate network densification for the 5G era.
Dense small cell deployments require a departure from “business as usual” approaches and methods used in larger deployment contexts. Case studies around the world have demonstrated that innovations such as streamlined planning application processes, integrated sharing, and design for minimising visual impact can be game-changers in the business of small cell deployment.
To ensure consumers can reap the benefits of a healthy competitive environment, public authorities need to avoid anti-competitive phenomena like exclusive access to small cell sites either accidentally or intentionally occur. It is important to drive a vision of open-access, whereby industry and local authorities can work together to share street sites in an open and collaborative way. This approach marks a shift away from the present exclusive rights regime, where operators bid for contracts with local authorities for the exclusive right to deploy micro-infrastructure such as small cells on street furniture such as lampposts and bus shelters.
Any operator wishing to use these assets must pay a wholesale charge to the rights holder. Retaining such models is impractical for 5G as both the market and regulatory landscape have changed. potentially stifling investments and slowing down 5G deployments. As an alternative, councils could grant access to street furniture on a fair and equal basis, thereby creating the right environment for long-term investment and innovation in future mobile networks.
Particularly in applications for planning permits, consistency is essential to ensure rapidity, predictability, and repeatability of dense small cell deployments. Applicants need to know what their outlays will be. Inconsistent (or worse: unsustainable) fees across jurisdictions is an enormous damper on the willingness to invest.
Small cell deployment has to be framed as a win-win collaboration between stakeholders, both public and private, with each recognising and promoting the advantages for themselves, the others, and the public at large.