Despite Lagging Deployment, Carriers Continue to Densify With Small Cells

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By Benjamin Horvath
Inside Towers Special Correspondent

tower on buildingDensification is the name of the game for carriers across the industry, and small cells are an increasingly popular method to increase capacity. Sprint and Verizon have announced the most ambitious small cell deployment plan, and T-Mobile has said it will deploy small cells in preparation for its 5G technology.

However, deployment strategies are increasingly becoming stalled due to the slowness of municipalities that are responsible for approving these small cells. Generally, the deployment process is also slower if companies are committed to providing fiber backhaul to each of its small cells, like Verizon has said it will do.

“It is about a 24-month period of time by the time you get a location, you negotiate with the landlord, you get the fiber to that location, because every single one of our small cells has fiber backhaul to a macro cell,” Verizon CFO Fran Shammo told RCR Wireless.                                 

Not all small cells require fiber backhaul, though, and carriers also utilize wireless backhaul for small cells depending on the cost and the small cell’s proximity to macro sites. For example, Mobilitie, which is working alongside Sprint in its deployment, said it has used wireless backhaul on a number of the small cells it has deployed in 2016.

“If it’s cost effective to micro-trench fiber to a particular small cell site, then people do it and we’ll do it,” Mobilitie CEO Gary Jabara said in a recent interview with RCR. “If it’s cost prohibitive [to micro-trench], then you have to microwave back to an adjacent location that’s got fiber because you’re always building rings.”

Sprint is still far from reaching its mark set earlier in the year; it planned to deploy 70,000 small cells but, even as we reach the middle of the year, has yet to reach the 2,000 mark, according to Mobilitie. Similarly, AT&T announced last year it was no longer pursuing its plan to deploy 40,000 small cell units and has been mum on the topic ever since.

T-Mobile has yet to announce a small cell deployment strategy, but at the Wireless Infrastructure Association’s (formally PCIA) annual show in Dallas this year, its SVP for Technology, Strategy Finance and Deployment, Dave Mayo, told an audience it will begin develop a plan to roll out small cells in largely-populated areas.

“We’re beginning to think about and do some small cell work in some of the big metropolitan areas, and I think we need to do that just to begin to build our muscle,” Mayo said at the show.. “We need to get the small cells in ahead of 5G … We’ve got to industrialize the process because it’s going to be required for 5G.”

In order to increase the rate of small cell deployment, Mayo emphasized the need to work alongside municipalities in the deployment process and the need to create a tighter partnership that will help streamline the process for the coming years.

“We’ve got to find a way to work with municipalities such that we can get quick access and industrialize our ability to deploy small cells,” Mayo said. “I am concerned that we are being a little too cavalier in some instances and messing up our ability to deploy small cells.”

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