Slowdown of Cellular Expansion

The broadband industry has always been cyclical. The industry has repeatedly gone through periods of booms and busts that have typically been exaggerated by the manufacturers of telecom equipment. When something new comes along, vendors jump on the new idea and drive up expectations for future sales. The stock prices of the vendors rise on the announced future expectations. But inevitably, the wave of enthusiasm comes back to earth, and the market returns to normal and vendor stock prices drop.

We’re now seeing the beginnings of the end of the boom of the big cellular upgrades to 5G. One indicator that the boom is slowing is that Ericsson and Nokia both recently lowered expectations for future equipment sales, and the stock of both companies instantly dipped around 10%.

For the last four years, the cellular industry has been in a boom as the big cellular carriers upgraded around 70% of their cell sites nationwide while also building new small cell sites. These upgrades meant huge sales for Ericsson and Nokia. It meant a big boom for tower climbers and crews who work on upgrading new cell sites. It has also meant a boom in fiber construction when carriers like Verizon and AT&T constructed fiber to replace costly leased transport for cell sites.

The improvement to the nationwide cellular networks has been impressive. The median cellular download speed nationwide measured by Ookla in 2017 was 22.6 Mbps, and at the end of 2022 had climbed to 193.7 Mbps. Most people think that fast cellular speeds are primarily for the benefit of customers. While this is an important issue, faster speeds are even more important for the best functioning of cell sites. Faster speeds mean a given customer uses the spectrum resources for a shorter time, thus freeing the network for other customers. Faster speeds alone have stretched the capability of cell sites to be able to handle a lot more traffic.

A slow-down of 5G construction will have a lot of repercussions around the industry. It will most immediately negatively affect firms and crews who have been working on upgrading cell sites for the last several years.

But there is an upside for the industry as a whole since some of the technicians who have been working on cellular projects can transition to the giant workload currently coming from building fiber. This won’t help technicians who only climb towers, but many of the other technicians already have fiber experience in their background.

These boom and bust cycles raise some interesting questions for the industry. The ones most harmed by the busts are the smaller construction and support companies that gear up to meet a specific industry demand – and these are usually the first ones cut when that demand slows.

I have to wonder what will happen to all of the cell sites that haven’t been upgraded. A lot of the remaining cell sites are rural, and I still see a lot of rural cell sites where carriers have not upgraded to FWA broadband. I recently cited the CEO of T-Mobile who described how the company rates rural markets. His rating system hinted that upgrades might not be coming soon for markets that the company rates low where the population is scattered.

I’ve worked in a dozen counties recently where 30% or more of residents told us on surveys that cellular coverage doesn’t work at their homes. This blog has largely concentrated on the lack of good broadband, but it’s just as devastating for a community when cell phones don’t function well. I’m not sure that DC policymakers fully grasp the hardships that come from lack of cellular coverage. One of my blogs earlier this year talked about a family killed by a tornado since they couldn’t be reached by cellular or broadband to warn about the coming storm. That’s an extreme example of problems that come from lack of cellular coverage – but the bigger tragedy comes in folks that can’t communicate in ways that the rest of us take for granted.

One thought on “Slowdown of Cellular Expansion

  1. Great insight as always Doug. I would add that WiFi Calling is solving a lot of rural customers spotty reception issues at home once we get them the fiber. I think rural fiber providers looking to expand services should consider offering point to point and point to multipoint wireless services for rural customers with large acreage farms & estates to capitalize on the failed promises of 5G.

Leave a Reply