ExteNet highlights opportunities, challenges in urban small cells and DAS installations

More wireless carriers are looking to deploy small cells and Distributed Antenna Systems in urban markets to augment network capacity, yet according to executives at DAS and small cell firm ExteNet Systems, municipalities often create hurdles that make installations difficult. Because of this installers must coordinate with city governments to make sure all city rules and regulations are being followed and that the deployment can be accomplished quickly and efficiently.

ExteNet, which owns and operates networks for carriers, has deployed more than 10,000 DAS nodes and counts around 15 percent of those deployments as small cell installations, according to CTO Tormod Larsen.

Over the last few years, carriers have increasingly deployed such infrastructure in major cities, and Larsen said the deployments are now extending from "NFL cities down into Tier 2 cities" with smaller populations. "In any dense urban environment, you still have the same aggregated traffic," Larsen said in a recent interview with FierceInstaller. "That's where we see clusters. We're going in and dealing with the areas where the carriers have issues."

In terms of dealing with municipalities, Larsen said ExteNet often runs into challenges. Many times, he said, city officials have not heard of DAS so they need to be educated on the nature of the deployments, for both indoor and outdoor installations. There are also often multiple stakeholders that the company needs to engage with to develop a common plan for deployments, which often are in central business districts, and on street lights and utility poles.

The zoning and approval process also can eat up a great deal of time, which makes it imperative that approval is granted for numerous nodes in a deployment. "In some instances, because you are delaying the network, not individual sites, you want to get a uniform approach," he said. "You want to make sure you don't need to go through and work through every street lamp like it's a tower."

Larsen noted that for installers, DAS and small cells present challenges that get exacerbated in city deployments, since ripping up streets to lay fiber is a complex process that needs to be heavily coordinated with city officials to handle aspects of the deployment like traffic patterns and street closures.  

"Coordination is critical," he said. "If it's not implemented well, it's harder to operate."

ExteNet works with several hundred different contractors for installations, Larsen said, including many small ones as well as some large electrical contractors that typically do work in installing fiber, like Gabe's Construction, as well as systems integrators that both design and deploy networks.  

ExteNet CEO Ross Manire said PCIA is working to develop more training for installers, especially for DAS. "They recognize there is going to be a dearth of bodies out there that have the requisite skill sets," he said.  

Manire said that because small cells and DAS are a "relatively new phenomenon in terms of the network topology" many municipalities, though not all, have not yet developed the ordinance systems or rules to expedite the deployments.

ExteNet has not seen any "tangible improvement" in speeding up deployments thanks to FCC rules the agency approved in October 2014 designed to accelerate the deployment of wireless infrastructure, Manire said. The rules took several steps to speed up the rollout of both small cells and DAS, as well as antennas and other network gear from multiple carriers collocated on the same cell site.

However, Manire said that ExteNet typically deploys an "anchor build" and is not collocating equipment on existing sites, so the rules do not apply. "What we'd like to see would be an initiative from the FCC that, as part of their whole connected city view of the world, would help us get through that cycle," of zoning and deployments," he said. "You need to give municipalities the time, place and manner, and aesthetics are important, but they shouldn't be able to unnecessarily delay a project. In an outdoor setting it can take us two years to get through all of that cycle to build."  

Related articles:
Crown Castle sees strong potential in small cells -- American Tower and SBA, less so
Verizon boosts data capacity, improves coverage with small cell deployment in Pittsburgh
Tower companies are divided on whether to pursue small cell opportunity
ExteNet Systems gets $1B in recapitalization from Digital Bridge Holdings, StonePeak
Sprint, Verizon sign on to ExteNet's Empire State Building DAS

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