Five years ago, one of the most talked about trends in the broadband industry was the upcoming explosion in the deployment of small cellular cell sites. The industry expectation in 2017 was that there would be half a million new small cell sites added within a few years. That expectation was bolstered by an FCC order in 2018 that basically let cellular companies place small cell sites anywhere, with an accelerated timeline and with a small cap on permitting fees.
After the FCC order, municipalities braced themselves to process large numbers of small cell site permits. The public got up in arms because there were some examples of horrendously ugly small cell deployments that were widely covered on social media. The public also got riled by the idea of placing small cell sites directly adjacent to their homes – with the most widely discussed deployment I recall in Philadelphia that placed a small cell site ten feet from a baby’s bedroom window. Anybody building a last-mile fiber network was hoping to sell transport to small cell sites scattered throughout neighborhoods.
My blog today is prompted by several cities and a university recently that asked me why they have never received any small cell site permit requests. I don’t have a specific answer for their specific location, but overall, the number of small cell sites deployed has been a lot smaller than was anticipated in 2017. The hard question to answer is how much smaller – how many cell sites are there in the U.S.?
That turns out to be a difficult number to count, mostly due to what is counted as a cell site. In 2022 the CTIA, the industry group for cellular carriers, claimed recently that there are around 419,000 total operational cell sites, including tall tower sites. I saw another estimate in 2022 that put the number closer to 350,000.
One of the differences in the numbers is the definition of small cell site. For example, there are a lot of cellular devices deployed to enhance cellular coverage inside tall or large buildings. Some people count these as cellular repeaters, while others claim them as small cell sites. Similarly, there are cellular boosters deployed at places like stadiums and convention centers that are functionally something less than a full standalone small cell site.
But back to the original question. Why aren’t there as many small cell sites as touted in 2017? The answer to that question means looking back at cellular networks in 2017. While it wasn’t discussed much publicly at the time, the cellular carriers had big problems in 2017. The proliferation of folks using cell phone broadband swamped the cellular networks, particularly in busy places like shopping districts and busy commuter routes.
In 2017, the cellular carriers envisioned a multi-prong approach to relieve overcrowding on overstressed cellular networks. One was to deploy more cell sites, the second was to introduce new frequency bands, and the third was to improve cellular speeds.
The FCC reacted to the need for spectrum and made several major new swaths of mid-range spectrum available to cellular carriers. Carriers rolled out the new spectrum and labeled it as 5G, even though they are still using 4G technology. But labeling as 5G gave the handset makers a good reason to market a whole new line of phones, and handsets that used the new frequencies decreased the demand on existing frequencies – to the point where the traditional 4G frequency bands are now sometimes faster than the 5G bands, due to the number of people using each.
The carriers improved cellular speed dramatically by modernizing cell sites with the latest technologies, and cellular speeds on both the existing 4G and the newly labeled 5G network got faster. As I wrote in a blog the other day, the median cellular download speed nationwide measured by Ookla in 2017 was 22.6 Mbps, and at the end of 2022 climbed to 193.7 Mbps. Faster speed means that the time that a customer needs to use the network is reduced, freeing the network for other customers.
There was a fourth benefit to cellular networks that was not in the cellular carrier plans. During the last five year WiFi has become ubiquitous. A huge amount of cellular data traffic has been transferred to the landline networks through WiFi.
There have been plenty of small cell deployments to lighten the traffic load on tall tower cell sites. The early deployments of small cells have been in areas where the customer demand was greatest. But the carriers didn’t deploy half a million small cells because it wasn’t needed. The overcrowding on cellular networks has been mitigated through the new spectrum, faster cellular networks, and WiFi.
Cellular companies will eventually need to widely deploy the expected small cell sites. As the demand for cellular broadband continues to grow at a torrid pace, the networks will get busier again. There are still additional frequency bands that can be introduced to spread the traffic, but small cell sites are still a part of the long-term solution needed to keep cellular networks healthy in the coming decades.