By Holger Hampf, Executive Creative Director & Ralph Bremenkamp, Principal Director, frog
Mobile network operators (MNOs) are looking to add capacity, expand coverage, and improve quality of service. But adding or upgrading cell towers is a costly proposition, and one that requires planning permissions from city councils and landlords. Add to that the space constraints in a metro city environment, such as London, New York, Hong Kong or Shanghai.
While small cells offer the cost, flexibility and form factor to set-up metro cell networks to achieve the operators’ need for network expansion, city planners (and consumers) wouldn’t like to see their city dotted with obtrusive wireless equipment and boxes. And naturally, this would make it difficult for MNOs to roll-out network expansion easily and cost-effectively.
To understand and address the challenges outlined above, frog recently worked with Alcatel-Lucent to develop a new design and vision roadmap for the company’s family of small cells products – lightRadio Metro Cells. As frog’s initial design research in various countries uncovered, people are increasingly reluctant to have new infrastructure technology installed in public spaces – given that they’ve accepted the rather unattractive equipment that already clutters the built landscape. However, they do want the benefits of the technology. frog took up the challenge to come up with a design language that would aesthetically blend into the surroundings (on lampposts, buildings, benches or signage) to offer seamless mobile service coverage, without becoming an eyesore for consumers and to speed up acceptance by city planners.
A new design and vision roadmap for lightRadio Metro Cells (click for larger version)
Designing ‘invisible’ small cells
The design process required us to take a critical view on appropriate aesthetics while being feasible to mass produce and practical to implement. However, aesthetics and mass production could not overlook functionality, affordability and accessibility. The design had to account for all internal components and any requirements for installation, mounting, sealing, and serviceability of the device. It was expected to work outside in all weather conditions, and be safeguarded against tampering. The design and source materials had to be cost-effective and compatible with the company’s manufacturing infrastructure.
Meanwhile, photographic evidence of the existing technology infrastructure in urban environments demonstrated that since the majority of technology in open spaces is not “owned” as such by any company or individual, it is often visually unappealing… often partly painted, with untidy wires or using unattractive materials. We dubbed these “techno-parasites”.
We then enriched this photographic evidence with a series of interviews with decision makers for public spaces in the UK and Germany – conversations that provided us deep insights into their concerns, and the requirements and challenges of installing and mounting cells in urban spaces.
As a result, frog was able to explore several design directions and prototype the most promising concepts as basic models crafted from foam, giving a clear idea of size and dimensions for each small cell. At the same time, our design team created photorealistic renderings to give an impression of color, material and finish of the product. These renderings included considerations for sealing and mounting, as well as an overview of how the cells’ internal components would be assembled. This provided the most realistic data possible to inform the model-making process.
The fruit of collaboration
Designers and engineers had worked hand-in-hand throughout the project to ensure suitable and cost-effective manufacturing processes and materials could be used to develop a mass-production version of the selected design. Alcatel-Lucent’s internal hardware development teams were working in parallel to frog, with both tracks being aligned in an agile process of continuous exchange, to finalise and align all details of the new product design language system with manufacturing.
The result is a well thought-through balance of design and engineering – a construction as simple as possible while maxing out the scalability of the visual language to be adapted to many possible future variations. The new growing family of Metro Cell products has laid the foundation that small cells can take their place in the built environment and visually blend into an urban context. As small cells are benefiting the mobile user and likely to become ubiquitous in everyday life in the near future, good design will fuel this mobile revolution.