By Don Bishop
As wireless networks age, reasons arise to take them off the air and decommission the equipment. It’s happening more frequently as the wireless telecommunications industry sees advances in technology that render legacy technology obsolete, as equipment reaches its end of life and prices of replacement parts skyrocket, and as voice over LTE awaits widespread adoption and replaces voice networks.
Dan Hays, a partner with PriceWaterhouseCoopers, led a session on Wednesday about wireless network decommissioning at the Wireless Infrastructure Show in Orlando, Florida. Sharing the stage with Hays were Lisa Hanlon, co-founder and CEO of Teltech, and Douglas Presti, project manager at Goodman Networks.
“In 2011, we won a contract to manage all the assets coming out of a network, decommissioning and recycling the coaxial cable and batteries,” Hanlon said.
Presti said his company is responsible for large decommissioning projects. “We decommission the hardware and set it up to recycle,” he said.
Hays said that no one ever builds an organization to take apart networks. Those who establish wireless communications companies have robust organizations to build, operate and maintain networks. With decommissioning, Hays said, “we help operators with what for what many of them is a first-time opportunity to plan for the end-of-life cost that they don’t think about.”
PriceWaterhouseCoopers surveyed wireless and wireline carriers throughout the world a few years ago, and three-quarters said they would decommission one of their networks in five years. “It was an even larger fraction with wireline networks,” Hays said. “None thought about what it would take to do it.”
Hays said one motivation for decommissioning is the evolution from 2G to 3G to 4G, and network operators don’t want to manage multiple networks. He said they want to use more efficient technology that consumes less power and less space.
“Around the world, some of the decommissionings are being driven by failure rates,” Hays said. “Some networks have been around for 10 to 15 years. They are electronic, and their failure rates are going up. The operators ask themselves, ‘When is the right time to not make the next repair and upgrade instead?’”
Hays said that some of the cards for the base stations have tripled in cost over two years, making them uneconomical to replace.
Moreover, the transition to voice over LTE is beginning. “Once you have that at scale, it will beg the question as to why am I still running legacy voice networks on old technologies.”
Hanlon said her company is managing all of the decommissioning for one original equipment manufacturer, using 38 in-market warehouses. “We creating our own tracking system,” she said. “We have containers that are locked down. We have all the coax and manage all the batteries through to the certificate of construction. It’s the trucking and logistics. We have 50 semi-trucks per weekend. That’s a lot of volume to manage.”
Hays said decommissioning involves lawyers because “you have to have a contract amendment and deal with the landlord. It’s an important challenge. You have to deal with the change, and you have a landlord with an ongoing relationship or maybe one that is being severed. As a tower company or an engineering services company, you have to redefine the relationship.
Presti agreed, saying, “You have to have attorneys. When you end a contract with someone, put yourself in their shoes. They’ve been getting checks every month for years.” He said landlords’ reactions can vary. “We’ve had some lock the crews out. Some call the police. They turn around and keep dragging us. We pay back rent. Landlords are figuring out ways to get their checks. It’s a fine line. I put the attorneys on my team. We go by the contract and we have been known to go after them and have a legal battle to get the site removed. The decommissioning work is not difficult. What’s difficult is with the landlords. It’s the mom and pop landlord that presents the challenge. Crown and American are easy,” he said.
Sometimes when wireless network are decommissioned, they still have customers. Hays said not all wireless network operators realize how long it can take to migrate customers away from an ongoing network. “There is a long tail of subscribers,” he said. “We had a client with 2 million people left who had been notified, and they hung on to the last day that the network was live.”