5G cellular networks are being deployed around the world to bring new levels of bandwidth and low-latency performance to customers, and Europe is no exception. The European Commission (EC) began pushing for the deployment of high-speed networks in 2018, including wireless and broadband, by opening up access to existing physical infrastructure.
More recently, the European Commission (EC) specified the physical and technical requirements of small cells for 5G networks and recommended that 5G small cell antennas be exempt from planning permission requirements. According to Commissioner for the Internal Market Thierry Breton, this recommendation paves the way for the timely rollout of 5G without restrictive administrative barriers. In turn, this helps create significant industry demand and amplify European innovations and competitiveness.
Most European operators have launched 5G services since last year and continue to upgrade their existing networks to 5G with limited new specific 5G cell sites. Deutsche Telekom Germany, for example, recently passed the 16m subscribers mark with 12,000 antennas for 5G in live operation. EE’s 5G network (BT) is now live in 80 cities and large towns across the UK , while O2, Vodafone and 3UK are rapidly expanding their 5G footprint throughout the country. However, operators plan to move beyond rooftop and tower installations to support the street-level wireless network capacity needed to provide customers with the robust 5G service they demand.
This is exactly where metro cells come into play. These outdoor small cells are scaled-down versions of macro cells and can be deployed on a variety of existing street furniture such as streetlight poles, bus shelters or other signage to help create truly smart cities. Metro cells also deliver capacity where macro cells can’t, while overcoming several traditional challenges to 5G deployment including site acquisition, relative cost, and aesthetics. They are an important part of a complete 5G solution for urban areas in particular, and a collection of cities throughout Europe are taking notice of and deploying metro cell technology.
For example, the City of Vienna, Austria recently announced a 20 million Euro fund for 5G deployment within its borders, and in the UK, the City of London (CoL) was quick to deploy metro cell-based 5G within the 'Square Mile' to meet the advanced communications needs of the capital’s commercial and government hub.
How metro cells surmount obstacles
The purpose of a metro cell is to provide cellular capacity in urban areas. It can be utilized, for example, in scenic rural areas and tourist hotspots where approval for macro antenna deployment would be challenging or impossible to obtain. Rather than using a half-dozen or more antennas, a metro cell uses just two or three.
However, like macro cells, metro cells require site permits, power, and fiber backhaul, and as an example, securing a new telecom site permit in Germany can take over 18 months on average. This is because of extended city planning permit cycles and the involvement of multiple stakeholders. However, the government is pledging to reduce this wait time to three months and contribute to certain costs where applicable. As briefly discussed above, metro cells typically require various concealment strategies to address local aesthetic requirements. Let’s look at these one by one.
Site acquisition – Traditional macro cells are deployed on rooftops or on towers, but metro cells call for street-level deployment. Local councils typically prefer metro cell deployments that aesthetically conceal antennas and radio boxes, which is why manufacturers have come up with a wide variety of concealment options, ranging from streetlight poles to wall-mounted enclosures.
Macro cell concealment options vary widely to suit local needs. For example, the city of Aberdeen in Scotland deployed macro cells on its streetlight poles, opting for bottom-pole, mid-pole and top-of-pole variations to suit local architectural styles and address aesthetic concerns. Specifically, the network uses traffic lights and lighting columns across the center of the city to provide coverage for the university, train station, football stadium and main commercial center. In other European towns and cities, operators are collaborating with franchise operators like coffee shops to aesthetically conceal macro cells inside their shopfronts, with wall-mounted enclosures being disguised as lighting fixtures or store logos.
Power and Fiber Backhaul – Metro cells require more power in addition to already supplied power for typical streetlights. As such, some European cities typically undertake civil work to trench streets and install additional capacity power options. Bringing fiber backhaul to metro cells also requires additional trenching or overhead construction. In many cases, cities enter into public/private partnerships to help subsidize the cost of such construction, explore synergies with other infrastructure projects like building a new fiber-to-the-home network, installing distributed power and laying hybrid cables. As well, our experiences show that some cities are becoming ‘neutral host’ operators where they cover the costs of deploying such infrastructure – and then recover those costs by leasing access to mobile operators deploying 5G metro cells.
Smoothing the Path for Metro Cells – European metro cell deployments are often custom engineered for a specific city or town. To streamline future deployments, cities are pushing state and central governments for consistent standards, which in turn will help drive standardized solutions for power, backhaul, and siting. Metro cell suppliers are now focusing on developing broad, standardized portfolios of radio, antenna and concealment solutions to reduce the need for custom designs. As these products gain greater adoption, prices should come down further. Solutions must also be devised for new as well as existing structures to aesthetically accommodate deployments in historically important (protected) urban cores such as the Gothic Quarter in Barcelona and central Venice.
In conclusion, network densification is a key requirement for providing the 5G capacity and coverage needed in urban areas. Metro cells are critical for the network densification that accompanies urban 5G rollouts, as they optimize capacity for street-level users by filling in the gaps left by macro sites. With growing standardization of components, concealment options and siting rules, metro cells can flourish in smart cities throughout Europe, bringing ubiquitous 5G services to subscribers and creating a data-oriented digital future.
Ali Alassady, business development manager, CommScope