Thursday, April 19, 2012

Are Small Cells the Future?

Internet mobility is almost a given with anyone who owns a phone today, but with increasing users the wireless system can become overburdened. The wireless system used by mobile service providers consists of a network of Macrocells. These cells are the primary source for much of the nation's 3G (and now growing LTE) coverage. If you've seen a tower or the top of a building equipped with radio antennas, you are viewing a cell site. These cells generally have a range of a mile or two so they must be strategically placed throughout a city to provide consistent coverage. Today, cities, mobile phone and internet providers are turning to small cells to fill in the gaps in coverage to act as a data off-loading element to help manage the spectrum of wireless connectivity more efficiently.

Small cells, compared to macrocells, are lower-powered radio access nodes that have a range of 30 to 650 feet. Network operators see this technology has a way to alleviate the massive data demands put on macrocells. Cities, like Chicago, view this technology as an opportunity to provide widespread wireless internet connectivity to its residents and the technology is being attached to a very familiar component to every city has - the street lamp.

Street lamps provide an existing structure that is located frequently throughout city streets but they require additional power to supply the necessary voltage to microcells. All the microcell needs are three things: somewhere to hang, power and fiber connection to backhaul data. Utilizing streetlamps seems to be the least unobtrusive option.

In Chicago, Mayor Daley had a vision of supplying the entire city with an alternative broadband service that would not only provide the city's residents a cost effective internet solution but also provide the city with much needed revenue. But due to rising costs and increased competition from other providers, the widespread plan was killed and the mayor instead implemented a less ambitious plan to infuse impoverished neighborhoods with internet connectivity to demonstrate the "transformative power" of the Internet.

Today, Chicago's new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, is reviving the former mayor's plan by establishing high-speed internet access to under-served neighborhoods, industrial corridors and public spaces. Emanuel's goal is to bring "free or heavily discounted, multi-megabit Internet service over a wired or wireless network" to 15 zones and public plazas and parks.

Millennium Park already has free Wi-Fi provided by a Chicago-based communications provider and other providers are seeing a big opportunity. Since the city is replacing hundreds of miles of water pipe, sewer lines and hundreds of thousands of catch basins, city streets are being dug up to accomplish the task. It seems that the opportunity to lay broad-band and the dark fiber throughout the city while these other infrastructure upgrades are taking place is one that shouldn't be missed.