Counting Cell Sites


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Recent research reports projecting cell site growth offer perspectives on what the demand for wireless infrastructure might look like over the next five to seven years. The problem is that the results of two such reports are vastly different, raising more questions than answers.

One report suggests cell site growth will reach 405,000 in five years, up from about 350,000 today, suggesting wireless networks still will be predominantly macrocell-based. Another report is more expansive and counts macrocells, small cells and distributed antenna systems (DAS), accounting for network densification as networks evolve to 5G.

Manufacturers and vendors rely on such reports for their future business planning but who should they believe? Without knowing how the numbers were developed, it’s hard to know what is valid.

Here’s how we look at it.

Wireless network capacity demand is determined by two factors – the number of devices (smartphones, laptops, tablets, IoT sensors) being used times the amount of data (unlimited data, streaming video) each device is generating. Both factors are growing exponentially, so the overall network demand is growing exponentially. To meet that demand, carriers must push radios closer to customers. That is the only way that they will be able to deliver quality services of high bandwidth (gigabit download speeds) at low latency (less than 10 ms).

Our analysis shows carriers are guiding to aggregate capital expenditures of over $30 billion a year for the next three to four years, up from $27 billion in 2017. Of that total, over 40 percent goes to the radio access network (RAN) and of that, 60 percent is in radio equipment. Expect large scale deployments of smaller cell sites that push radios and antennas closer to customers. In fact, small cell installations are well underway with Tier 1 carriers to the tune of tens of thousands a year and growing.

In sum, it is not unreasonable to expect that cell site deployments, of all sizes, over the next five years could tally well over a million sites.

If you are considering buying a market research report, ask about:

  • Methodology – How did they come up with the numbers? Does it make sense knowing what you know about wireless?
  • Sources –Did they interview key people at vendor and carrier companies or simply rely on other published information, or both?
  • Experience – What is their industry experience? Do they know their stuff?

By John Celentano, for Inside Towers

July 30, 2018


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