Network Densification & the Joint Use Industry

Posted by Ashley Little on July 13, 2021

Network Densification & the Joint Use Industry

A couple of years into the deployment of 5G technology many asset owners, including utilities and municipal governments, continue to receive an ever-growing number of joint use requests. Increasing consumer demand for reliable mobile phone service, high-resolution video, and faster download and upload speeds, is fueling intense competition for market share among providers.

According to a 2020 CTIA report cited by Telecompetitor:

  • Mobile data usage in the United States has multiplied by at least 96 times since 2010.

  • Consumption by the average smartphone user increased from 6.6 GB per month to 9.2 GB per month just from 2019 to 2020.

  • Capital investment in U.S. wireless networks was $89 per capita in 2019.

Meanwhile, the Internet of Things (IoT), an interconnected society of smart homes, smart cars, and smart cities, is on the horizon. All of this would not be possible without increasing the amount of available capacity, which means network densification.

The cell tower network that sustained the last few generations of wireless technology is not adequate in meeting the demands of 5G. To build the kind of communications network that can handle 5G, while lay the groundwork for what promises to be one wave after another of advancing technology, heavier densification is required. But what exactly will that mean to network asset owners and companies that attach to those assets? Let’s explore the topic in further detail to examine that issue.

What Is Network Densification?

A communications network of greater density requires several changes. The most obvious is also the most visible: more antennas. High-speed, low-latency 5G wireless broadband is too much for macro cell towers alone to support. A major part of the solution is small cell technology.

A small cell unit is designed to serve a more limited area than a cell tower, which means a far greater number of units will be required for optimal service. The equipment ranges in size, takes a variety of forms, and is often dictated by local ordinances designed to reduce eyesores. Most often, this equipment is attached to an existing structure such as a utility pole, a streetlight pole, or buildings. In spots where no existing structure is available, a stand-alone structure may be installed.

Deploying small cells across the U.S. is a massive undertaking. A 2021 Research and Markets report states that the United States will go from having roughly 30,000 antennas to 300,000 or more in the future.

Another key component of the deployment is deep fiber. Abundant fiber-optic capacity is necessary to provide backhaul for small cell networks as well as for the growing Fiber to the X movement, which brings superior fiber-optic cable closer to the end consumer – neighborhoods, individual homes, or businesses. Many providers are eager to replace old copper cable, which degrades more easily.

Other important aspects of network densification are more efficient use of available spectrum and the expansion of carrier-implemented WiFi, which Research and Markets estimates will reach $4.2B globally by 2026. Conventional Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) likely will play a role.

How Network Densification Is Changing Joint Use

The rapid changes of recent years, particularly the mushrooming of small cell deployment, mean far more activity for asset owners and joint use departments in particular. The number of attachment permitting requests to attach small cell equipment to utility poles and streetlights has grown exponentially. Electric utilities have been dealing with attachment requests for years, but not at anything approaching this volume.

A national funding initiative for rural broadband has drawn smaller electric cooperatives into the densification picture. Even with the financial help, though, these entities must find more efficient ways to manage large volumes of data as they venture into uncharted territory.

Some municipalities, meanwhile, had little experience with attachment requests until the small cell boom began when space on streetlights and utility poles became high-demand real estate. The increase in the amount of work also has brought new players into the mix, from engineering and construction firms to new infrastructure owners looking to capitalize on the growing need for attachment space.

Planning deployment of this many pieces of equipment; dealing with asset owners, third-party contractors, and fellow attachers while ensuring that the equipment has adequate backhaul and keeping pace with the competition is a challenge, to say the least.

Every stakeholder has their own concerns and priorities, but must work together to keep everything flowing smoothly and minimize conflict. Growth opportunities are great for those who are properly prepared to navigate this hectic process.

Making It Work

Network densification in the 5G era is no simple task. This process requires coordination, collaboration, and making smart decisions based on data. Stakeholders must easily access accurate data on existing infrastructure to know where changes are possible, where they are needed, and how they can best be accomplished safely and efficiently. Getting the deployment right is a high-stakes business because industry stakeholders will keep building on what is currently being put in place.

Alden's CEO John Sciarabba sees it this way: “We’re building a communication network, and things are going to use that communication network. And those things are going to be more assets that will be deployed on more structures, and it’s just going to continue this wave of work that we see.”

If companies want to position themselves to take full advantage of present and future opportunities, they must establish the business processes that allow all the facets of infrastructure deployment to flow together smoothly. Data must be up-to-date, well-organized, well-analyzed, shareable, and actionable. Alden One’s business automation platform moves each project from proposal through review to approval, construction, and inspection, creating a time-stamped record of the entire process.

Alden Systems is hard at work to make this kind of collaboration possible for electric power, telecommunications, CATV, broadband providers and the engineering and construction firms that partner with them. Alden One® is designed to save time and free up staff to use their specific expertise where it’s needed by keeping them from getting bogged down in busy work.

If you’d like to know how you can speed up deployment, book a meeting with a product specialist here.

Communicating the Importance of Joint Use