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Outdoor small cells are a challenge for mobile operators. Nodes are often deployed to increase capacity in places where the network is struggling, but a spot that needs a small cell may not have a pole to support one. Even if a streetlight or utility pole is nearby, gaining access is likely to involve negotiations with at least one public agency. If another carrier has already deployed on the structure, adding more equipment becomes even harder from both a technical and a regulatory perspective.

These are the reasons that Ericsson and Kathrein have developed technology to embed small cells in manholes and connect them to existing landline infrastructure. The concept was first developed for Swisscom, which is testing it this month in Bern, Zurich, Basel and Lausanne.

Kathrein has integrated its antenna with a specially designed manhole cover. The antenna is in a special casing under the cover, which is load bearing and vibration limiting. Below the antenna is Ericsson’s base transceiver station.

The “Street Connect” solution should be commercially available next year. Operators that have already secured underground rights-of-way for fiber deployments are likely to be the most interested. In the U.S., Verizon Communications and AT&T have both deployed fiber to support residential and enterprise broadband. Cable operators often have access to underground conduit as well, and can partner with wireless carriers to backhaul small cell traffic.

Analyst Ken Rehbehn of 451 Research thinks operators who don’t currently have underground rights-of-way may be motivated to explore the move in order to take advantage of an in-ground small cell.

“The operators may not have underground right-of-way today, but Kathrein’s offer gives them – as well as tower company partners – excellent motivation to look at potential assets under foot,” said Rehbehn.

An in-ground installation is less likely to spark residential protest than a pole attachment, so city planning departments are likely to show interest in an in-ground solution as well. New York City has already scheduled a demonstration with Kathrein.

“A community’s aesthetic requirements frequently limit antenna form factor and placement,” said Rehbehn. “Especially in the case of historic areas, the operator’s site toolkit must incorporate a variety of clever antenna form factors.”