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Outdoor small cells: Solving yesterday’s challenge tomorrow

March 10, 2022 | Remember that Stargate episode when they wormholed past the sun and got flung back to 1967? No? You’re missing out; can’t beat MacGyver in space. Anyway, I had a similar experience (i.e., not really) happen when updating our outdoor small cell forecast (published next week). I read an article that I was certain was about eight years old – small cells were being trialed for deployment on street lamp posts. Nope, I was wrong, the article was current.

That problem – where to put outdoor small cells – is literally a decade old. Since then, many deployments have obviously happened over the increasing objections of many cities and municipalities. With good reason in some cases, since some pole-based small cell deployments gave squirrels’ nests a bad name. But they don’t have to, and many existing installations are unobtrusive particularly since some cities (like NYC) adopted a standard form factor for all deployments. Moreover, an entire niche industry of stealth towers and pole replacements emerged to help solve that problem while also providing room for additional equipment such as edge compute.

But municipalities restricted and delayed, attempted to generate revenue from permits and/or pole attachment fees (and I’m oversimplifying) until the FCC acted to streamline the process. The result? Immediate pushback. Today, municipalities can basically only require carriers to adhere to aesthetic standards. Unless the town/city has deep pockets and is willing to fight, of course, in which case carriers usually just give up and move on – i.e., ignore the market (how many cellular carrier options are there, really?) or deploy more equipment on towers and/or rooftops assuming they can find and lease space at a reasonable cost.

Then the pandemic hit, many office workers began working home and are now, it seems, staying there for two or three days per week. We expect that to continue. The result? Most of that previously urban, outdoor mobile voice/data demand moved to residential Wi-Fi and the suburban macrocell sites. One problem, of course, is that suburban towns are as protective of their aesthetics as big cities, so the problem of permitting and deploying outdoor small cells remains. Moreover, the timelines are as least as long as in big cities. Consider a town in Massachusetts where it took 20 months to deploy 40 outdoor small cells (i.e., two months per cell). An extreme example, perhaps, but one that begs the question: why bother?

In the end, carriers are still trying to solve decades-old issues of placing the outdoor small cells. Everyone knows where they must go, but few (it seems) are willing to allow them that real estate.

Will there be new outdoor small cells deployed? Absolutely. The “new” mid-band spectrum used for mobile 5G NR services greatly benefits from being closer to end users while mmWave bands require proximity if not line of sight. We were never sold on the use of mmWave in urban centers to address mobile capacity demands. (Fixed wireless is a different topic.)

From our perspective, then, iGR has not only lowered our pole-mounted outdoor small cell forecast, but also pushed it out by about 12-18 months. Stargate-MacGyver and his team had a choice: live in the past or find a way home. What will today’s carriers choose?

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