Issues faced with Small Cell & CRAN deployments – and how to overcome them

(Image Credit: iStockPhoto/neilkendall)

Many people believe you can just go and install a small cell or a RRH (Remote Radio Head) on a pole and you’re done. Well, there is a lot more to it. The real deployment problems begin when you are selecting your sites. Here are some of the most common issues: 

Selecting Mounting Assets 

If you are new to deployment then maybe you believe you can mount the smaller units anywhere. However, you need to go through several hurdles before you deploy. First, you need to find out who owns or manages the asset. This is where you might work with a tower company that has small cell assets because they have places for you to go. All you need to do is make sure the location fits the RF design. 

Ownership is a real issue because there are so many assets; identifying the pole owner could be problematic. In a city, the pole could be owned by the city or a utility, or it could be managed by someone else. You then need to make sure that the structure will hold your radio, antenna, and mounting gear. You might also need to install a cabinet at the base and the antenna near the top. The owner could also require you to have a structural analysis done on the pole. You don’t want the pole blowing over in a storm, right? 

Your mounting asset could be the pole, but let’s say you want to go on a building. On some occasions the building roof might not be the best solution, so what can you do? You could mount on the side of the building, or even in an office facing out of a window (assuming it’s not lead-lined.)  

Get creative when you have to, otherwise try to keep it simple. When mounting in an odd location in the building you might have to work a lease with someone else; like the tenant of that office. I know that when mounting low and on the side of a building it’s possible you will have to get permission from another management company, and not the group which manages the roof.  

You could do a strand mount, but then you need to verify the strength of the strand. Strand is straight forward because it’s just a piece of steel cable. Once the tinsel strength is verified, look at the connection to the pole and make sure it’s secure enough to hold the additional weight that is being added.  

Don’t forget about permitting and zoning. This is going to determine how and where you mount; with the municipalities blessing. Remember they have the power to fine you or make you rip it out. If you think you can just slap-up the equipment on a pole without getting the proper permits, guess again. You need to be sure zoning will allow your unit and antenna to be there. 

Follow the permitting rules for installation! Know the local ordinances prior to installation, as it will save you a lot of headaches. This is why site acquisition teams earn their money.  

So now you’re ready to mount the radio and the antenna, but wait, there’s more! You need to consider all of the following prior to mounting anything… 

Backhaul Solutions  

This is another issue when selecting a site. Even though you have the poles or buildings selected, you need to be sure there is a backhaul solution at the site. If you decide to go wireless, then make sure you have a good link to the nearest fiber location. This is critical for you to make sure you have the backhaul connection you need. This could also apply to fronthaul if you are deploying CRAN. 

If you are deploying CRAN, the BBU (baseband unit) will need to connect to the backhaul and the fronthaul as the CRNA RRH will need to connect to the fronthaul. What is the solution? Well you could use a combination of wireless and fiber, and maybe even copper. This should all be planned out before the installation, but a survey of the site could reveal an issue that you were not aware of when looking at the site design. I believe that surveys are invaluable because they identify all the issues that didn’t show up on paper. You may think your wireless link has line-of-site to a building, or that fiber is on your side of the street, just to find out that neither is true.  

Don’t be afraid to get creative on backhaul and fronthaul designs. It might be a good idea to use a mix of fiber and wireless to connect. Look at the system on a map and see if there is a method of connecting back to a macro site, then all of the rest will be taken care of. Offer solutions to your customers that will allow them to deploy in a cost-effective manner.  

Fiber Accessibility 

Most times the backhaul will have a fiber connection somewhere. You might have one at each location, or you might choose to connect wirelessly back to a common point which will need fiber. In this case, you will need to make sure that a fiber connection is available where you’re installing. If you need dark fiber, then you need to be careful where you locate the site. Some carriers prefer dark fiber for the backhaul and many need dark fiber fronthaul. Running fiber can be expensive if you have to trench, pull permits, hire traffic control, and perform construction. The key is to be cost-effective and mount close to a fiber ring or send wireless back to a building where you should have easy access to fiber.  


Many people think that if a light pole has a light on it, then it would have power available. Well, when I deployed street WiFi I learned that nothing could be farther from the truth. A lot of pole lights run on a higher voltage like 220 or 300VAC+ which belongs to the owner of the lights. If they don’t want to power your small cell or RRH, then you need to get your own power. You need to know what is available, but you will probably end up running your own power as even utility poles don’t have power accessible. If they have power on the pole, it doesn’t mean that you can tap it and bring power to your radio. 

The first thing to look at is how to get power there as it could be from a greater distance than anticipated, and it might not be cheap. Even in a building there could be an issue running power where it is needed. There might be core drilling involved, there could be additional permitting needed, and it could be against the landlord’s policy to have power run to your location. Once again, this issue should be worked out prior to installation. 

Cost to Deploy 

There was a time when the equipment was the limiting factor when calculating costs. Now it is the services, backhaul, and lease pricing. Hardware got cheaper, but services add up. The costs might not be known until the research is done; which is something that will take planning and experience. When the early adopters of small cells and CRAN started their deployments, this is something found at their expense. Experience is the best teacher, and the others just sat back to see what they did. 

In the US, Verizon Wireless deployed and ran trials to see where they could become more efficient. Verizon had to weigh out the time-to-market versus the cost effectiveness of backhaul like running wireless versus fiber. Leasing prices also need to be considered, as some leases include power and backhaul whilst others don’t. They worked with site acquisition teams to find a process that would allow them to save on leasing and design work up front. All of this began to drive the costs down for the other carriers to deploy. Live and learn, but it’s nice when someone else foots the bill for learning!  

This should prepare you for some of the problems you might encounter. Until you start the deployment, you don’t know all the problems. When you think you have seen it all then you run into something new. There is always a challenge, so make sure to exercise risk management and proceed with caution.  

What should you do? Plan, plan, and plan even more. I don’t want to stifle the actual deployment, but if you have a good plan and remain flexible then you should be set. It pays to stop and look around when picking the sites, and it pays to weigh-up your options on the backhaul. Be open and be flexible, then do the installation and enjoy a successful deployment! 

Have you faced issues with Small Cell and CRAN deployments? Share your experience in the comments. 

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