“Small Cell Industry Update: Hitting High Gear,” the final panel session of Nov. 12 AGL Virtual Summit, discussed the factors influencing the rise of small cells in the wireless infrastructure ecosystem and how the industry has evolved to fulfill the need. The small cell share of the total RAN market has grown from less than 5 percent in 2014 to 10-15 percent in 2019, according to research by Dell’Oro Group, and it is expected to fall between 15 percent to 20 percent in 2024.
“More has happened in the last four years in small cells than in the last 20 years since picocells were first installed,” said Stefan Pongratz, a Dell’Oro Group vice president and analyst who moderated the panel. “Small cells are now an essential component of the overall RAN toolkit,” he said. Kelly Richards, senior vice president of telecom sales for the Americas at Raycap, agreed, saying that in the last two years, her company has seen small cells “really pop,” as she put it.
In the last 20 years, a lot has changed for small cells, Pongratz noted. Technology has evolved from 2G to 5G. The location of the baseband architecture has moved to centralized locations. The latest shift in technology has been to Open RAN. In the future, new spectrum allocated in the mid-band and millimeter-wave band will add to the complexity of small cells.
Also, the monetization of small cells has shifted, at least for now, from commercial to private applications.
“In terms of revenue from small cells, we are seeing more non-traditional wireless use, public safety, enterprise,” Pongratz said. “It’s not just about consumer smart phone use any more. We are more optimistic about small cells in the 4G to 5G transition than we were in the 3G to 4G transition.”
According to Jim Neuens, marketing director for metro and RF test instruments at Viavi Solutions, small cells using 5G wireless technology are highly suitable for private networking, whether the application is a smart factory or simple enterprise with enhanced mobile broadband. “Look for greater growth in the private side, given it is a better fit for the environment,” he said.
Raycap entered the small cell business after establishing itself in the macrosite space providing surge protection. It purchased Stealth Concealment Solutions in 2018 and Apelio Innovative Industries early in 2020.
“We were asked by our customers to get involved in small cells a few years ago,” Richards said. “Because of our investments and forward movement by the industry, we have seen the capex spend materialize in the last two years. With the deployment of mid-band spectrum, you are going to see an interesting synergy between the macrocells and the small cells.”
Growth for test and measurement is driven by change in the technology, Neuens said. “The 5G network looks very different, especially with small cells with a brand new frequency band: millimeter-wave. Fiber complexities drive additional opportunities for us,” he said.
At Valmont, fabrication of small cells was positioned in the light pole side of the business, which has a long relationship with the municipalities. It has evolved to meet industry needs to attach small cell enclosures to transform existing poles into 5G nodes.
“We have tried to take that knowledge of working with the munis, being a bridge between them and the wireless carriers,” Sean Gallagher, director of sales for Valmont Site Pro 1. “What has been required is a lot of new skills and to hire new people. We are working with new materials to work with technology in ways that we had not done previously.”
Panelists agreed that a lot of wild cards have come with small cells, and there are no guidelines from the past.
Neuens noted that although small cells are bringing new players into the deployment game, it takes more time to get them fluent in the technology and the installation. “We are facing that challenge head on and automate the process as much as we can with our toolset,” he said.
Developing the small cell product line has been a challenge. Raycap offers fully concealed poles, partially concealed poles and non-concealed poles, but pleasing each municipality demands multiple variations, according to Richards.
“Nothing is cookie-cutter,” she said. “There is a lot of customization, so we end up offering an extended breadth of product. We end up creating solutions rather than offering a product line. It is challenging having to create different solutions. That should even out in the long run.”
Valmont Site Pro 1 has also had to meet demand for product variations from municipality to municipality. “Differing municipalities have different standards concerning aesthetics,” Gallagher said. “It creates challenges for the carriers, because of the time spent for the iterations to go back and forth. The amount of vetting makes it unpredictable. One municipality required us to put the small cell through wind tunnel testing, which borders on the extreme.”