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Small cells: will local authorities attract the investment opportunities on offer?

Small cells: will local authorities attract the investment opportunities on offer?
This year has seen many high-profile announcements on deploying Wi-Fi small cell solutions, both in the traditional indoor hotspots, such as coffee shops and airports, but also as small cells in outdoor environments.

On the face of it, it seems like a quick and easy way to provide the necessary coverage and data rates end-users are looking for.
 

But what experience can operators expect when deploying Wi-Fi small cells and what role do local authorities play?

Looking at the case of mobile operators, the bulk of their cellular installations have relied on rooftop deployments where they have had to deal with building landlords or a ground level mast and cabinets in a number of locations.

Here planning permissions have had to be gained and landlord’s permissions sought.

Moving to the case of the Wi-Fi Small Cell deployments in streets, suddenly the whole planning process increases exponentially as each Wi-Fi unit on a lamppost needs to go through the necessary approvals.

Consider a major thoroughfare in a busy city with access points deployed every 50m; that‘s a lot of planning applications just for one street.

Then other hurdles are hit (had to get a sports related theme there somewhere) as only certain contractors are able to access the lampposts, preventing the operator using known and trusted partners.

A few councils have caught onto the surge in interest in Wi-Fi and small cell deployments in their streets and are issuing tenders to invite potential partners to pay to deploy in their boroughs.
 

But are councils missing a trick?

With a little bit of joined up thinking within the councils, there is an opportunity for them to generate an initial investment from the operators plus residual income. But they need to get their thinking hats on and adapt to the faster moving telecoms world.

Why not pre-empt an approach by an operator to deploy in their streets by packaging up a commercial and planning programme to make it simpler for the operator to choose that area?

For instance, the councils could establish a pro-forma planning application for lampposts, and define upfront what would, or would not be, deemed de minimis, plus rental fees and maximum power consumption and associated electricity tariff.

By taking a proactive approach to Wi-Fi and small cells, the councils will be able to attract those operators and generate much needed income in these straitened times.

Additionally, by being shown to be a progressive borough or town there will be commercial benefits for the local economy attracting further investment and raising the area’s profile.

The Wi-Fi and small cell vendors also need to adjust the way they are approaching the market and get closer to the local authorities and councils earlier to ensure their product developments are actually deployable.

What I have witnessed from a few vendors will not get past first inspection with the local councils and are also potentially a bit unrealistic in their expectations on power availability (both in terms of dc versus ac and the actual wattage).

Also they need to understand the skill level of staff allowed and trained to access lampposts, for instance. The solution needs to be as easy as putting up the Christmas lights.

There are plenty of challenges ahead for mass Wi-Fi and small cells deployments, but also plenty of opportunities for the likes of councils and local authorities to make their boroughs highly attractive and draw investment from the operators.

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