Small Cells vs. Long Range Spot Beam Antennas Added to Existing Towers Serving Rural Targets. Is the Small Cell solution always the optimum one?

Adding Spot Beam Antennas to Existing Towers Reduces the Need for Costly Small Cells

Providing efficient, economical voice and data service to remote, low usage areas is a major headache for cellular operators.

Long range coverage and higher QOS are needed in rural areas rather than increased capacity.

Not only are the residents demanding service, but most regulators specifically include good rural service as a mandatory demand as part of the operator's license.

One of the standard alternatives to erecting and maintaining a full BTS to serve such an area is the use of various forms of "small cell".

All these are dependent on the availability of DSL or other non-network back haul solutions such as fiber, and usually require local authorities consent, electricity and rent.

Oddly, operators in less developed countries where there is little or no availability of DSL have for years been using the often-neglected alternative of adding sectors to existing BTS coupled with very high gain, very narrow "spot beam" antennas to serve distant, low Erlang targets. Besides offering an easily implemented, low cost solution to this issue, there is a complete absence of additional ongoing costs.

In the excellent document 047.07.01 "Rural small cell market size, business case, challenges & solutions” dated December 2013 issued by the "Small Cell Forum" one can easily see that introducing a "small cell" solution to a poorly served rural area is costly in terms of both CAPEX & OPEX not to mention the project time frame and effort involved.

More recently, while speaking at the Oppenheimer 19th Annual Technology, Internet and Communications Conference, AT&T’s CFO, John Stephens, said that "re-deploying spectrum assets is cheaper than adding small cells and cell towers".

A bonus to the use of very high gain, very narrow spot beam antennas is the fact that the operator, in many cases, also improves service to those customers residing in the footprint of the antennas beam between the BTS and the target area.

Although not in all but certainly in a large percentage of rural coverage challenges, the spot beam antenna solution is obviously the better alternative in terms of financial, environmental, reliability and user satisfaction.

More information and case studies on successful remote rural communities are found in Reference 1.