The Future of Small Cell Sites for Telecoms

Posted by Mary Ashley Canevaro on October 20, 2020

future of small cell sites

In the past few years, communications companies have deployed thousands of antenna systems to fuel next-generation 5G, and this trend will continue in the foreseeable future as 5G networks continue to roll out across the country. The 5G broadband system will support connections for artificial intelligence (AI). 

To expand network capacity, providers are packing more cell sites into specific geographic areas. Low-power antennas, including small cell and DAS (distributed antenna system), are being overlaid to supplement current coverage and capacity. They also enable mobile devices to reuse available spectrum. 

Small Cells and DAS: A Critical Investment in 5G 

Verizon, which is emphasizing high-band 5G, estimated at the beginning of 2020 that it would deploy five times the number of small cell units this year as it deployed in 2019, although the company did not provide a specific number. It’s unclear what impact the pandemic may have had on those plans. AT&T continued to expand both its low-band and mid-band 5G coverage in 2020, but the company was not specific regarding how much small cell deployment was associated with the expansion. T-Mobile, which is focusing on mid-band 5G service, eased off plans for small cell deployment following its merger with Sprint, although it had 26,000 small cell and DAS sites at the end of the first quarter of 2020 and still planned to eventually increase that number to 40,000 to 50,000. Crown Castle said it planned to deploy 10,000 small cell nodes in 2020 and planned to deploy 10,000 small cell nodes in 2020. 

Small cell and DAS are the key infrastructures to enable 5G, especially top-speed high-band 5G, but they also represent future revenue potential and competitive advantage for providers.

“5G is not just about better phone coverage,” noted Colby Synesael, Managing Director and Senior Research Analyst at Cowen & Co, who has been closely tracking the technology Faster wireless will enable new services. Communications companies expect it will monetize utility infrastructure to offset installation costs. 

How Are Small Cells and DAS Deployed? 

Understanding how small cell and DAS are deployed can help joint use owners prepare for attachment permitting and other relevant joint use activities. 

Small cell and DAS do not generate a cellular signal; they distribute an existing signal. An external radio frequency (RF) source feeds a signal to the small cell, which distributes the signal to its network of antennas. Then, it distributes the signal to users. 

Small cell and DAS need both antenna and transmission equipment; this equipment is installed on joint use infrastructure. Outdoor DAS and small cells are designed for low-height antennas, which often have limited coverage and need to address abundant interference. Even foliage can interfere with the wireless signal. 

While each individual small cell node requires its own dedicated power source and backhaul source, DAS is composed of multiple remote antennas that all connect to a single base transceiver station (or multiple transceivers to serve multiple carriers). 

Current Deployment Challenges 

Communications companies, government entities, and other stakeholders are working on regulations that will streamline deployment of the necessary infrastructure for 5G. The current infrastructure environment creates situations in which providers often choose to install small cell in situations that would be better served by DAS. For example, providers may submit applications for small cell in downtown core areas where DAS would actually make more sense. In some cases, providers apply for permits on adjacent poles, where DAS may reduce visual clutter.  

The challenges that communications companies face with small cell deployment include

  • A DAS that serves multiple carriers needs a concentrated and coordinated effort, as well as someone to manage the project. 

  • Small cell is easier to deploy. DAS applications are reviewed in total – an objection to any part of the DAS application holds up the entire request. Each wireless provider has different objectives and may not need the same locations. 

  • Each wireless provider has different deployment times. Requiring DAS may force one carrier to wait if others are not ready. 

  • DAS costs more because it is designed for requirements of the most advanced user. So, if carrier A needs feature X (even if carrier B doesn't), then the system will include feature X. 

  • Companies deploying small cell must negotiate agreements with local municipalities. This can sometimes be a complicated and lengthy process. 

The Future Challenges of Small Cell and DAS 

While communications companies continue the drive to expand 5G service at different bandwidths to communities across the United States, joint use owners are working to meet the increasing demands of attachment permitting for small cells and DAS.  

How can the two work together? At Alden, we are exploring solutions for this challenge. Learn more in our Guide to Small Cell Technology and find out how the joint use platform, Alden One®, simplifies all interactions between joint use professionals and helps streamline the pole attachment process.

For questions about our products or services, book a meeting here.Small cell attachments