Panelists at the Wireless West Conference last week agreed that the wireless industry is shifting its small cell deployment into high gear, discussing both the reasons behind that growth and the issues that might hinder it.
Several factors are driving the deployment of hundreds of thousands of small cells annually, according to Jeff Lewis, president and founder, Verticom, who moderated “Small Cells, Big Market,” from general economic momentum to positive telecom industry trends. Specifically, he also cited the growing number of 5G use cases plus clarity surrounding timelines for 5G NR standards and deployment. Additionally, mobile edge computing is a key component of scalable 5G architecture.
“In addition to FirstNet, you have the TV repack and relocation initiative. You have incremental industry spend of $2 billion. Throw in regulatory and tax reform and you have another $2 billion of free cash flow,” Lewis said. “With the successful 5G trials going on nationwide, ROI models have begun to factor in less risk, which increases the project approval rate. Any time you have less risk and a more predictable deployment model, capex increases.”
One carrier, T-Mobile, has a “robust small cell program,” planning on deploying 25,000 small cells in the 18 to 24 months, according to Hollie Maldonado, site development manager, T-Mobile. She contrasted that number to the 20 years it took for the carrier to build out its current lineup of 60,000 macrosites.
Crown Castle, which as 50,000 small cell sites, is in the process of 5,000 more sites in the western market. “We are seeing enormous growth in small cells,” said Dan Schweizer, Crown Castle International government relations. “We are trying to build as many of them as we can.”
Kishore Raja, Boingo Wireless VP engineering, said there is an additional catalyst for small cell growth, noting they can now be deployed in two different ways on unlicensed spectrum as well as licensed, bringing with it new business models. “Now, there is a third avenue: the 150 megahertz at 3.5 GHz of spectrum in the Citizens Broadband Radio Service,” Raja said. “This opens up small cells to neutral host operators sharing spectrum with the incumbents.”
Opening up New Markets
The panelists discussed new markets that small cells bring to their companies. T-Mobile is currently deploying small cells to offload 4G LTE capacity from its macrosites, but the same sites will bring 5G services as close as possible to users. Crown Castle will use hyperdensification for offload of fiber data traffic and carrying mission critical Internet of Things data in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Small cells give Boingo Wireless an additional tool to solve issues in its current venues and also allow it to serve additional venues that before did not make economic sense. ExteNet uses small cells to densify the networks of carriers.
The challenge, according to Raja, is creating the user experience. “Whether the deployment is New Radio, millimeter wave, 4G, 4G advanced, Wi-Fi or any others, the goal is a clean, seamless user experience as they move from network to network,” he said. “Virtualization will be very key to managing these networks, both in terms of capex and opex.”
Opposition from Municipalities May Be a Drag on Small Cell Deployment
While the panelists agreed on the need for small cells to the future of the wireless industry, they also agreed that without streamlining of the municipal zoning processes the idea of deploying 100s of thousands of them seems impossible.
“We know one of the keys to achieving that goal is working with local governments. We have our work cut out for us,” Maldonado said. “We have launched a hefty site advocacy campaign in several markets to ensure that groundwork has been laid to execute quickly.”
Extenet is trying to drive down costs and streamline processes in the rights of way at a local level with the municipalities, according Greg Spraetz, SVP & GM enterprise solutions, ExteNet Systems.
Schweizer noted the work done by states and the FCC facilitating small cells. “Texas, Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico have all passed streamlining bills. Hawaii and California are pending,” he said. “I don’t believe we should have put small cells through zoning. There should be an agreed-upon form factor with the city, the industry has to do its part to build attractive sites that are compatible with existing residential areas and we should be able to pull a permit like any other right-of-way user.”
Recent rules adopted by the FCC, which exempted small cells from NEPA and SHPO regulations, will save the industry a lot of money and deployment time, according to Raja.
Schweizer cautioned streamlining regulations and legislation do not replace good relationships with municipalities. “There is no silver bullet,” he said. “Good state regulation does not obviate the need for government relations and being a trusted partner.”
J. Sharpe Smith
J. Sharpe Smith joined AGL in 2007 as contributing editor to the magazine and as editor of eDigest email newsletter. He has 27 years of experience writing about industrial communications, paging, cellular, small cells, DAS and towers. Previously, he worked for the Enterprise Wireless Alliance as editor of the Enterprise Wireless Magazine. Before that, he edited the Wireless Journal for CTIA and he began his wireless journalism career with Phillips Publishing, now Access Intelligence.