2023 could be a big year for small cells

Crown Castle aims to double its small cell deployments to 10,000 this year.
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· 4 min read

The phrase “cellular network” might conjure images of hundred-foot towers, but the next phase of 5G could be focused on equipment that’s a bit more discreet.

All three of the US’s largest public cell-tower companies have said they expect 2023 to be a big year for small cells, as 5G buildouts shift away from 5G macro deployments toward smaller mobile installations and telcos begin to finish their mid-band 5G rollouts. A small cell is a low-cost radio access point with a low radio frequency, power output, footprint and range.

Houston-based Crown Castle is one of the country’s largest cell-tower operators, and in addition to its formidable network of traditional cell towers, it operates a large number of small cells throughout the country. Crown Castle then rents access to that infrastructure to telcos and private companies.

The company, which saw site rental revenue grow by 8% year over year in Q3 2022 to nearly $1.6 billion, currently operates about 115,000 small cells throughout the country, in cities like  Seattle and New York City. It deploys about 5,000 small cells a year, including in 2022, but plans to double that rate to 10,000 this year, per its Q3 2022 earnings release, highlighting its rising emphasis on this tech.

“You’re moving beyond just having the tower,” Mark Reudink, head of technology strategy at Crown Castle, told Emerging Tech Brew. “You need the fiber plus the vertical asset. That’s that utility pole streetlight to build to deploy the small cell. We’re providing both of those, and essentially charging rent for that to the wireless carriers or other companies that want to be able to use that asset.”

All the small cells

Crown Castle’s small cells are just one piece of the larger 5G picture.

The next-generation standard comes in three flavors: low-, mid-, and high-band. Low-band covers more distance, high-band is faster, and mid-band is the sweet spot in between the other two, with the ability to cover significant distances and offer relatively high speeds.

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Carriers and telcos have used the mid- and high-bands, specifically C-band and mmWave, as the primary spectrum for their networks, whether it’s public cellular connections or private networks in places like factories, stadiums, and airports. Because high-band signals can’t travel as far as low-band signals, small cells have generally been used in densely populated places like cities, event spaces like stadiums, and workplaces.

The number of small cells operating in a given area can vary greatly depending on factors like population size and density, Reudink said. For example, he explained that in a city like Seattle, Crown Castle has only deployed a couple hundred cells, compared to Los Angeles, where it has deployed around 2,000.

“You’re not going to necessarily need to blanket the entire metro area you’ll use a combination of towers [and] small cells, but certainly a downtown core or someplace else where you have restaurants and business districts, that’s where you want to have this more dense network of small cells,” Reudink said.

In the early days of Crown Castle, the demand for small-cell buildouts was often driven by aesthetic preferences or zoning restrictions, Reudink said. That’s because, unlike the large antennas and towers that propagate cellular connections, small cells, by nature, are deployed in smaller venues and can be more inconspicuous. Crown Castle often installs the increasingly common cells on streetlights and utility poles or creates what Reudink said the company calls “stealth cacti” to help them blend into locations in the Southwest.

Zoom out: Crown Castle isn’t the only small-cell manufacturer in the industry. JMA Wireless builds small cells out of its factory in Syracuse, New York, part of what New York Governor Kathy Hocul’s office described as the “only US-owned 5G campus in the US.” And another small-cell operator, American Tower, announced in its Q3 2022 earnings that it had identified more than 1,000 “shovel-ready” sites for potential mobile-edge deployments.

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