Small Cells Sitting Pretty as Networks Are Readied for 5G

Wednesday Apr 12th 2017 by Carl Weinschenk
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As networks move to 5G, the nature of the new protocol will make it necessary to deploy huge numbers of antennas and towers. This is good news because dead spots and performance issues within buildings and at crowded indoor and outdoor venues will be alleviated.

There is good news and bad news as networks move to 5G. The nature of the new protocol will make it necessary to deploy huge numbers of antennas and towers. This is good news because dead spots and performance issues within buildings and at crowded indoor and outdoor venues will be alleviated. The bad news, of course, is that deploying this new infrastructure is costly and difficult.

Earlier this week, I posted on 5G spectrum issues. One striking finding is that rural Britain will require about 400,000 new masts (the English term for cellular infrastructure) just to serve rural areas. It will be interesting to watch the forms that additional infrastructure takes. Small cells will play a big role as they represent what in essence is a new layer of connectivity between macro towers and end users.

Carriers and their ecosystems increasingly are focusing on real-world, practical issues related to the transition in general and small cells in particular. RCR Wireless’s Diana Goovaerts reported last week from the Competitive Carriers Association Mobile Carriers Show on a panel that counseled small carriers on deploying small cells. One expert suggested “a targeted, data-based approach” focusing on getting the most and fastest bang for the buck. The expert mentioned a half-dozen parameters to consider. Another expert pointed out that there are many ways to set up these networks. Close coordination with the existing macro site is important, he said.

One thing seems sure: The small cell sector is well positioned. Last week, Mobile Experts released its annual analysis of the market. The press release on the report, which also covers remote radio head (RRH) technology, predicts that revenue will triple to $4.5 billion by 2022. The compound annual growth rate (CAGR) will be 17 percent for 2016 to 2022. The enterprise and carrier segment will have a 30 percent CAGR. As upbeat as those projects are, the release did point out that the numbers are slightly less bullish than last year because “some key programs in China and 'direct-to-enterprise' channel did not materialize as anticipated.”

The growth is apparent in announcements. Last week, for instance, Sprint said that during the past year it has deployed dozens of small cell sites throughout downtown Detroit. The project in which the small sites were an element was aimed at increasing coverage, capacity and performance. Services were upgraded at Comerica Park, the MGM Grand, Ford Field, Cobo Hall and the Detroit Athletic Club, the release says.

Earlier transitions, such as from 2G to 3G and 3G to LTE, to a great extent involved changing out electronic elements and software at central offices and cell sites. The 5G change is a horse of a different color: The frequencies that will be used make it necessary to deeply supplement what is already in the network. This process will drive a tremendous amount of investment.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.

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