The Challenge Facing Enterprise Small Cells: Changing Minds

Ed Gubbins
Ed Gubbins

Summary Bullets:

  • Overcoming enterprise small-cell obstacles requires changing existing paradigms and business models.
  • Some vendors and operators have already begun accepting new business models, but convincing enterprises, venue owners – even some operators – could be tough.

You have to sympathize with enterprise small-cell vendors. Who knows how many months they have dedicated to R&D, product management, standards work, testing, trialing, marketing – all promising operators the prospect of bringing coverage and capacity to a place where a huge portion of human communication begins and ends. And yet, when operators approach enterprises with these innovative solutions, in many cases they’re likely to be met with just four frustrating words: “We’ve already got WiFi.”

If they can get past that hurdle, the next one is just as predictable: “Small cells aren’t multi-operator.”

All the while, operators may be caught between the enterprise and the venue owner, whose interests don’t always align and whose combined requirements can strain the economics of small-cell deployment.

Faced with these challenges, RAN vendors have tried to help operators find soft ground – for example, targeting venues like shopping malls, where the prospect of clustering small cells from multiple operators may be less onerous than it would be in, say, a typical corporate headquarters. Extra enticements like location-based services are being explored to help sweeten the deal in these cases. But, when it comes to that corporate HQ, the work that remains to be done is not R&D or standards work. It’s changing minds.

As we move to small venues, we need to see a shift in philosophy,” U.S. operator T-Mobile’s Alan Tantillo recently said on a panel at PCIA’s Wireless Infrastructure Show. “We need to see venues decide to put systems in themselves – just like power, light and water.

To some extent, we’re seeing vendors acknowledge these moves.

  • Huawei has begun promoting these concepts, engaging the Enterprise Group within its own company to inform not only the development of enterprise small cells, but also go-to-market efforts, so that Huawei can sometimes sell small cells directly to enterprises and bring operators in after the fact – in some cases, to operate small-cell networks that are owned by the enterprise or venue owner.
  • Ericsson recently announced a partnership with Skanska, a Sweden-based construction firm, to employ its Radio Dot System for indoor coverage and capacity in the buildings it constructs as well as smart-building Internet of Things applications. Notably, Ericsson says Skanska has even been targeting multi-tenant residential spaces with the Radio Dot, despite Ericsson’s general lack of interest in the residential small-cell space and its clear intentions to target enterprises with the Dot. Maybe minds are changing within Ericsson, too.

How comfortable will operators be with these potentially changing roles? It’s unclear.

Not all of them will agree with T-Mobile’s Tantillo. Many will likely be uncomfortable with the idea of managing infrastructure they don’t own. The question for those operators will be whether they believe they can penetrate enterprises on their own terms – overcoming the challenges mentioned at the start of this post – or whether they’re the ones who need to change their minds.

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