As data traffic and demand continues to surge, mobile network operators are prioritizing network densification, which will increase the capacity of their networks, helping them deliver the consistent, reliable and speedy service that 5G has promised.
Densification will involve new deployments and upgrades at the macro level, as well as large-scale deployments of small cells, particularly for those carriers and MNOs interested in making significant use of higher frequency bands like millimeter wave (mmWave).
Below, Chris Levendos, executive vice president and COO, Network at Crown Castle weighs in on small cell densification, offering insight into some of the biggest challenges it presents, as well as the work the company is doing with major U.S. carriers.
Q: From Crown Castle’s perspective, how will small cells fit into 5G networks? What is their role in ensuring the best possible 5G experience?
Levendos: Communications infrastructure — small cells connected by fiber and towers — is the foundation for 5G. Small cells, in particular, will bring the necessary coverage and capacity to support a 5G network by allowing a cost-effective densification of their network, particularly when they can be deployed on shared infrastructure. Crown Castle’s shared infrastructure model translates into fewer construction projects; less consumption of raw materials, energy and water; less waste; and, ultimately, a faster path to deployment of 5G wireless broadband access across communities.
Q: How many active small cells does the company have now?
Levendos: We are the market leader in the U.S. with approximately 80,000 small cells on air or under contract in every major market in the U.S., including more than 700 municipalities.
Q: What about the future? What is the company’s small cell outlook over the next few years or so?
Levendos: For 25 years, Crown Castle has worked around the country to build and maintain the infrastructure behind the world’s most revolutionary technologies. We have already seen how important small cells are as a key tool used by the carriers to add network capacity by reusing their spectrum over shorter and shorter distances. We believe small cells will be an even more important tool going forward as the nature of wireless networks requires continued cell site densification to meet the increasing demand for data, especially as 5G networks are deployed.
Q: I also know that earlier this year, you signed a long-term small cell deal with Verizon. What can you tell me about that deal?
Levendos: In January, we announced the expansion of our longstanding strategic relationship with Verizon with a significant small cell agreement to support Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband and 5G Nationwide deployment. Specifically, Verizon has committed to lease 15,000 new small cells from Crown Castle over the next four years. We believe our ability to offer a comprehensive solution with towers and small cells at scale provides us the best opportunity to deliver value as we support their wireless infrastructure needs.
Q: Speaking of small cell deals, T-Mobile US cancelled a deal with you in 2020. I know that the carrier’s President of Technology Neville Ray has made statements about having too many small cells, but what reason did the it give for the cancellation and how did this impact Crown Castle’s plans if at all?
Levendos: In December 2020, T-Mobile US notified Crown Castle it was terminating approximately 5,700 small cells contracted with Sprint Corporation prior to its merger with T-Mobile. The majority of the terminated small cells were not yet constructed and, upon completion, would have been located at the same locations as other T-Mobile small cells. T-Mobile terminated the sites in accordance with the early termination provisions in the contract per our financial disclosures from Q4 2020. That development did not impact the long-term growth opportunity for our small cell business.
We continue to work with our carrier customers to provide the communications infrastructure they need for their networks — whether that’s consolidating two networks, as was the case with T-Mobile, or helping build a new 5G network, as is the case with DISH.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges that the company has identified when it comes to densification via small cells in particular?
Levendos: We are committed to partnering with municipalities to ensure that the necessary communications infrastructure is built for residents and businesses and the municipal organizations to stay connected. We will support all legislation at the state, federal and local levels that furthers this goal.
Crown Castle supports a unified, consistent and transparent process with reasonable fees that expedites the deployment of communications infrastructure.
There is also a need for innovation. We simply can’t expect to keep pace with the explosive demand for data growth by building fiber and small cells the way we did 10 years ago. Crown Castle is focused on innovation and evolving deployment models in partnership with the shared infrastructure model to enable meeting the coverage and capacity needs in the U.S.
Q: Is Crown Castle exclusively putting small cells on existing infrastructure or is the company also involved in developing entirely new cell sites for the purpose of small cell deployment?
Levendos: Our goal is to use as much existing infrastructure as possible. Our small cells are typically installed on existing right of way infrastructure, such as streetlights or utility poles. Small cells are not installed on towers. If no suitable utility poles are available, or if the municipality restricts our use of streetlights or traffic poles, we may need to install new poles. In such cases, we comply with all lawful local regulations governing such installations and work with the municipality to design a mutually acceptable installation.