Shared infrastructure in the urban core can accelerate 4G and 5G wireless communications and support exponential growth and data trends, according to Steve Baker, director of vertical markets at American Tower. Speaking at the Connectivity Expo conducted by the Wireless Infrastructure Association on May 22 in a session about small cell innovations, Baker highlighted trends that he said he sees and drew some parallels between where the wireless industry has been, where he believes it is now, and where it is headed. He spoke of some uses for smart poles and where they fit in the landscape of deploying small cells and addressing other needs in the communities that American Tower serves.
Baker said three megatrends form an important backdrop to the theme of smart city initiatives. They are in their infancy but will continue to ramp. He said urban growth is a catalyst for deploying smart poles, and cited statistics that 80 percent of the U.S. population and up to 95 percent of California’s population resides in urban areas. The chipsets that go into cellular handsets and cellular networks have doubled in capability while costs have been rationalizing or even falling, Baker reported. The conversion of street lights to LED lighting is making a difference to smart city initiatives, he said.
Last September, American Tower partnered with Philips Lighting to produce a multitenant smart pole. With roughly 44 million street lights in the United States and only 15 percent of them having been converted to LEDs, Baker said cities are looking to partner with the wireless communications industry. He said that with network densification, between 10 and 100 times more antenna sites will be needed. That in itself is pushing service providers to use smart poles and other solutions, Baker said.
“The past is a bit of prologue,” Baker said. “If we rewind a tape 20 years, we were bumping into each other on caravans and talking to the same farmer about a cell site. We were bumping into each other at zoning hearings. We were deploying single-tenant pieces of infrastructure across the landscape. And we were in the same process that I feel we’re in now of educating jurisdictions on the technology. You can make a strong case about some of the parallels.”
The macro side of the business uses shared infrastructure with towers accommodating multiple users, and Baker said the end customers for wireless infrastructure have grown accustomed to that collocation model in the United States and globally. He said they see collocation as efficient for scaling to deploy new technologies with the speed and predictability that operators want.
Beyond Shared Infrastructure
“I challenge the industry, and I know we’re challenging ourselves as a company, to apply that same model of shared infrastructure for what it can drive in terms of predictability, capital and efficiency to the urban landscape,” Baker said. He showed a photo simulation of the smart pole innovation American Tower and Philips are bringing to market, a product with everything self-contained. This, over time, is something he said the industry will adopt.
Baker said he did not believe the smart pole would supplant the wireless communications equipment and antenna attachments used in certain urban areas. But he said the use of the smart pole is an essential step toward maturity for the wireless communications business to take in the urban core where installers find limited vertical infrastructure, aesthetic concerns in historic areas and high-density use.
For Baker, shared infrastructure goes beyond smart poles to include other shared multitenant pieces of infrastructure where limited options and multiple tenancies bring a need for efficiency, speed and predictability, and where jurisdictions embrace them. More highly coverage-focused uses occur, Baker said, but he said he believes there will be fewer of them. He said suburban areas represent one example where planned unit developments have underground utilities and offer a greenfield situation. Service providers can deploy smart poles as a way to provide coverage. He also cited historically or environmentally sensitive places such as slot canyons and national parks.
“I see a parallel between where we’ve been as a macro industry and where we are migrating to,” Baker said. “The shared infrastructure model can provide efficiencies and benefits as we think about future deployments in the urban core.”
Challenges of Smart Poles
When it comes to meeting the smart pole deployment challenges, Baker said there’s a need to align the long-term interests of cities, utilities and mobile network operators, and to do it in scale. One way of obtaining scale uses what Baker called cluster permitting.
“The model ordinance that our industry has come together around includes the cluster permit approach,” he said. “That’s how you drive efficiency and scale versus one-off solutions.”
Modularity helps to integrate a wide range of technologies into a single pole at a single location, and Baker said it also helps to make the site capable of serving future uses. It also helps when suppliers are embedded with the original equipment manufacturers to understand their technology road map and with the carriers to understand their intended uses for the technology. He said modularity allows additional technologies to be supported and swapped out, and also for other uses to be addressed to the greatest extent possible, rather than just a single-tenant system intended to address a near-term need.
Viewing the mobile network as an RF engineer would, Baker said that the macro layer that he defined as the base 4G wireless communications layer will continue in use for a long time to come. “Smart poles do not supplant that in any way; they complement it,” he said. “They densify that base layer, particularly as you move into a 5G architecture.”
American Tower has not invested heavily in fiber-optic cable in the United States, and Baker said there are various options for bringing fiber to small cells that involve partnerships. “Small cells are fundamentally fiber-fed solutions until the point that leapfrog technologies now in development come on line,” he said. “The need could be addressed through a modular approach to the pole or structure itself.”
Access for placing wireless communications equipment for small cells on light poles plays an important part in deploying mobile communications networks. Baker said he has heard that utilities own about 60 percent of the poles. Utility ownership leads to different results for small cell deployment compared with city-owned poles, including the tariffs that apply. He said converting light poles to LED lighting frees up headroom for electrical power availability at the poles.
“I’ve seen success in partnering between the city and the utility,” Baker said. “The city often is the utility’s customer, and some sort of public-private partnership for LED lighting conversions can open up capacity on the poles for smart pole and small cell deployments.”
Baker said it depends on the utility and what its capital availability is. In California, some cities have purchased the utility poles, although he said that probably is an anomaly.
“I think in terms of this space and delivering multitenant solutions,” he said. “I think it is having that real estate experience between infrastructure owner and operator as tower-like as possible. That would either mean direct ownership or an arrangement for an exclusive right where there’s the ability to deliver predictability.”