Virgin Media Business gets ready for small cells

Ron Kline, Principal Analyst, Network Infrastructure

As the talk of small cells heats up, so does the need for backhaul. I recently met with Virgin Media Business (VMB) to discuss backhaul for small cells. The company has a fiber-rich network within major population centers in the UK and provides wholesale mobile backhaul services to mobile providers in the country.

VMB has been developing a concession-based small cell-as-a-service (SCaaS) offering using a mesh network architecture that combines its fiber assets with radio to extend coverage for small cell backhaul. Small cell backhaul is a nascent market in the UK, primarily due to lack of small cell deployments by operators that are still focused on building out their initial LTE coverage with macro cells.

However, that is about to change as MNOs are actively trialing small cells and are making plans for network rollouts beginning in 2015.

VMB intends to be a one-stop shop for small cell

VMB is attacking two critical parts of small cell deployments: site acquisition and backhaul. MNOs could deploy and manage small cells themselves, but street-level deployments require securing individual city council concessions, and there are restrictions on when work can be performed and by whom. VMB has gained the appropriate concessions from different city councils to deploy small cells.

Because it is not feasible to build fiber to every small cell location, VMB needs to extend coverage via a hybrid fiber/wireless network. The company is currently looking at how it can combine its fiber assets with microwave radio technology to provide a hybrid mesh targeted at the small cell market.

Traffic management on a microwave radio network made up of a mix of technologies is a big challenge that MNOs would rather avoid. All mobile operators have areas of congestion in their networks and are grappling with planning for small cell deployments. By addressing these critical pieces of small cell deployment, VMB intends to become a one-stop shop for small cell deployments in the UK.

It’s a mesh for vendors

VMB already has a substantial nationwide fiber network across the UK, covering 80% of the population. The company uses DWDM gear from Transmode to provide 1Gbps synchronous Ethernet services to MNO macro sites in the region. VMB is now looking at how it can best address the small cell backhaul opportunity by combining fiber with radio to provide a mesh network.

The company completed a small cell trial using Alcatel-Lucent’s 9768 metro outdoor radio (with fiber backhaul) and is now testing a mix of different microwave radio technologies to determine how they respond to deployment and operational challenges. All the equipment trialed is light-touch with auto-alignment features.

The company recently completed a small cell backhaul trial using microwave radio products from Intracom Telecom and Sub10 Systems. VMB successfully trialed Intracom’s StreetNode 32GHz radio and Sub10′s Liberator V 60GHz links to determine the practical reality of mounting the equipment on lampposts and operating in an urban environment. The installations were completed by technicians with little telecom expertise. VMB is now trialing E-band and sub-6GHz radio products from Siklu and Fastback.

The timing is right

It is still early in the game for small cell deployments by UK MNOs, but that is expected to change as activity and proof-of-concept trials increase in 2014. In the meantime VMB is increasing its site acquisition and backhaul capabilities to extend its end-to-end synchronous Ethernet services to the small cell backhaul market and simplify service for its customers.

Not only does Ovum expect greater interest from MNOs in small cells over the next 12–24 months, we also believe there is a role for companies to provide services around small cells. Ericsson, prior to this year’s Mobile World Congress, announced its own small cell-as-a-service offering. Alcatel-Lucent, Huawei, and NSN all have services dedicated to easing the rollout of small cells.

As MNO network hot spots will overlap, sharing of some network assets becomes a logical option. Having a third-party vendor like VMB offering small cell services makes the sharing of those assets easier as VMB can act as a neutral party among those MNOs.

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