5G Small Cells Face Deployment Dip

Article By : Dan Jones

C-band 5G macro RAN deployments are causing a slackening in 5G small-cell rollouts, but EE Times sources expect the small-cell market will grow in size and scope from then on.

A sizeable cellular infrastructure and fiber provider in the U.S. is seeing a temporary slowdown in its rollout of 5G small cells because its mobile network operator (MNO) customers are concentrating on large-scale C-band 5G deployments for the time being.

“I see a lull in the action with small cells,” Jay Floyd, vice president of strategy and product at ExteNet—a provider of fiber, small cells, and distributed antenna systems—told EE Times.

Verizon and AT&T faced delays when initially implementing C-band (3.7 to 4.2 GHz) 5G mid-band services due to Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) concerns about the new cellular technology interfering with air travel. Now that this issue has largely been addressed, Verizon said it planned to cover 175 million people in the U.S. with C-band 5G service by the end of 2022, while AT&T expects to cover 100 million.

This macro infrastructure burst, however, has slowed down the deployment of 5G small cells. These tiny transceivers, which first came about with 4G, have been used to help deepen the coverage and expand the capacity available in a specific area of a cellular network, as well as increase the data-download speeds for users in that zone.

5G cellular repeater (Source: Shutterstock)

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic already had something of a dampening effect on the growth of the 5G small-cell market. Now, with the focus of some U.S. MNOs shifting to deploying C-band radios on 5G cell towers, the take-up of small cells is temporarily slowing.

“It is not going to be a complete stoppage of deployments in 2022 and 2023,” Floyd said. In fact, he said he expected the pace of small-cell implementation will “pick back up in the mid-part of 2023 [and] the activity will grow from there.”

This corresponds with an August report from ABI Research. The analysts forecasted that small-cell deployment would accelerate in 2025, as the 5G macro Radio Access Network (RAN) can no longer solely cope with the rapid mobile data traffic growth. With a limited number of new macro-cell sites available, the most practical approach to solve this problem, ABI said, is the dense deployment of 5G small cells. By 2027, there will be 13 million outdoor 5G small cells in place worldwide, the firm predicted.

Outdoor small-cell deployments will always outpace indoor activities, mainly because of the priorities that MNOs set to serve their subscribers, Floyd said, but he sees interesting developments in the indoor arena. “We’re right now working on the largest indoor network deployment project in the country with MGM Resorts,” he added. “That is one of those venues or customer locations that take precedence just because of the sheer number of people that the service reaches.”

Small cells are growing from their urban network densification roots, and the markets that 5G small cells can serve are broadening.

MNOs will extend the areas and markets served by small cells over the next few years, Floyd said. “Both Verizon and T-Mobile have well established their desire to get into the fixed wireless access market, serving homes with fixed wireless internet access. That’s going to drive the need for network densification, and I think that is going to spur activity beyond the typical urban densification that we’ve previously seen, to spreading out into residential areas.”

MNOs are now not the only contenders in the wider RAN market, as cable players have also started to muscle into the cellular space. The cable firms are expected to build out their own 5G small cells in the states where they operate.

Roger Entner, lead analyst at Recon, and ExteNet’s Floyd expect cable companies to build out more 5G small cells. “I think the cable companies will be quite strong in it,” Entner said, adding “both Charter and Comcast have CBRS spectrum, and they’re planning to use this to provide an overlay of where they provide coverage.”

The cable operators are going to want to build out their own networks, Floyd said, and “in doing so, that’s going to include not only macro sites but also small cells.”


This article was originally published on EE Times.

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