Small cells, DAS and Wi-Fi aren't universally loved

editor's corner

One glaring fact coming out about the growing momentum behind the deployment of small cells, carrier-grade Wi-Fi and distributed antenna systems (DAS) is that zoning is becoming just as big an issue with these topologies as it was with gigantic macrocell towers.

I recall early talk about small cells and the like, where vendors touted the fact that these coverage and capacity solutions would be far less objectionable than macro towers and in many cases not subject to local zoning ordinances. Slowly but surely, news is creeping out from local communities where the townsfolk are none too happy about all of those little access points and antennas being deployed on lampposts and utility poles in their neighborhoods.

One big brouhaha is going on in Northampton, Pa., where the township is engaged in a contentious battle against American Tower, which wants to deploy DAS on behalf of T-Mobile USA. The two sides have agreed to try and work things out before an Aug. 31 deadline. There are also zoning issues in Scarsdale, N.Y., where Crown Castle's NextG unit is trying to deploy DAS for MetroPCS (NYSE:PCS).

In at least a few cases, companies are claiming that their DAS deployments constitute public utilities, meaning they should have reasonable access to public rights-of-way. City planning boards don't necessarily agree, however, feeling they should be able to apply existing zoning laws to these diminutive though prolific deployments just as they would a single 150-foot-tall antenna site.

Even Wi-Fi is even getting a second look. In Canada back in February, the Ontario English Catholic Teacher's Association called for an end to new Wi-Fi setups in the province's 1,400-plus Catholic schools, saying all computers in new schools should be hardwired due to fears concerning RF radiation. In British Columbia, a parent organization in late May approved a resolution calling for all school districts in the province to designate one elementary school that would be free of Wi-Fi (as well as cordless phones and cell phones). It also voted to urge boards of education to cease installing Wi-Fi in schools whenever there are other alternatives. Never mind that Industry Canada recently declared that Wi-Fi is safe in schools.

Public Wi-Fi hotspots in cafes and restaurants have largely been getting a free pass from mass public scrutiny. At least, I haven't seen any crowds of anti-Wi-Fi protesters outside of my local Starbucks. But I wouldn't be surprised if that were about to change as people start to realize just how many Wi-Fi networks surround them, which would not bode well for all of those carrier-grade Wi-Fi deployments being contemplated by mobile operators and cable companies.

Aside from community concerns, zoning rules and technology issues such as the myriad backhaul choices available, operators must deal with the sheer logistics that accompany any small cell-type deployment. With a macrocell deployment, a tower company or mobile operator can usually expect to deal directly with one municipality, perhaps a county regulator and a single property owner (not counting nearby neighbors with opinions). But there can be numerous municipalities and individual property owners that must be consulted before an extensive small cell, Wi-Fi or DAS network can be designed and rolled out.

"It just begins to multiply," said David Dunn, vice president of the wireless infrastructure group at Zayo, a provider of fiber-based bandwidth infrastructure and network-neutral collocation and interconnection services.

Zayo just launched a dedicated small cell unit, with Dunn heading up the effort, and is trying to build up a group of expert allies it can turn to as it develops that part of its business. "We're evaluating potential alliance partners because the ecosystem is so much greater than just Zayo," he said.

Because deployments can extend to lampposts, utility poles, office building interiors, large public venues and more, "the variety of different equipment locations will be challenging," said Kelly Haug of Zayo's FTT (fiber-to-the-tower) product management group. He noted small cell industry players need to not only learn how to gain access rights, but also figure out how to power up equipment and find cost-effective methods to actually build to varied locations that will require different types of construction methods than those used for macrocells.

Haug said that in the RFIs (requests for information) Zayo has received regarding small cell buildouts, it's not clear whether mobile operators want to take control and handle the zoning and right-of-way issues or whether they want their vendors to assist. The real estate aspect "is going to be one of the most challenging parts of the whole concept of small cells," he said.

Noted Dunn: "The small cell industry in general is very fluid right now. The future for this business is not yet written."

I think that's putting it mildly.--Tammy