Crown Castle CEO: Small cell deployments take 18-24 months, and that won’t change anytime soon

On its website, Crown Castle highlights the difference between a standard cell tower and a small cell attached to a street light. Image: Crown Castle

Crown Castle’s CEO said the company’s small cell deployments usually take 18 to 24 months to complete, start to finish, largely due to the need to obtain local permits for the installation of the devices. And Crown Castle’s Jay Brown said he doesn’t expect that time frame to speed up anytime soon, despite efforts by regulators, legislators and others to ease the red tape around small cell implementations.

“I believe that small cells will always be a long timeline of deployment,” Brown told FierceWireless. “And the legislation [around small cells], while it may in some cases make it a little bit faster, it's more likely to just give better visibility to the returns and costs associated with deploying wireless technology, not necessarily make it that much faster.”

Brown’s comments are noteworthy considering recent noise on the topic of small cells, alongside pledges from officials at the FCC and the White House – including from President Trump himself – to speed the small cell rollout process. Wireless carriers and others have argued that small cells are a key element in their efforts to densify wireless networks and therefore support additional data traffic as they migrate to 5G network technology over the next few years.

“We shouldn’t apply burdensome rules designed for 100-foot towers to small cells the size of a pizza box. If America is to lead the world in 5G, we need to modernize our regulations so that infrastructure can be deployed promptly and at scale,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in June.

And President Trump, in a June meeting with wireless executives, asked specifically about local permits for small cells, and he expressed a desire to help the carriers deploy the cells much faster. “We can do a recommendation to the cities all over the country to get it going,” he said at the time.

Further, states across the country are in the process of enacting legislation around small cell deployments, with an eye toward giving speed and clarity to the process.

Nonetheless, Crown Castle’s Brown said he doesn’t expect any actual improvement to the company’s estimated 18-24 month small cell deployment timeline.

“I think it's always going to be a balance between us as an infrastructure provider and the concerns of the local community that we'll want to work through as small cells are deployed, fiber and small cells are deployed. So maybe in some cases and some markets where there's a great deal of difficulty and total uncertainty around the deployment of it, in those markets it will obviously get faster. But there are a number of communities already around the country, and particularly in the top 10 markets, where they've already started to work through that,” he said.

“And the construction timeline and the deployment schedule ends up being in that 18 to 24 months amount of time. And like any large construction or infrastructure project, it's just going to take time to make it happen in a local community,” Brown added. “So, I wouldn't work at the timeline to get meaningfully shorter than what it is currently.”

Brown’s comments are particularly noteworthy in light of Crown Castle’s wholehearted embrace of the small cell sector, including the billions of dollars the company has spent to acquire fiber in part to provide backhaul to small cells. The company in the first quarter of this year said that it counted 25,000 small cell node deployments in its pipeline. “As 5G takes shape over the coming years, we believe we will see increasing demand for small cells that will drive additional returns on our investment as further densification occurs,” Brown said during the company’s second quarter earnings conference call with investors, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of the event.

The lengthy rollout timelines in the small cell sector could have significant implications for wireless operators hoping to speed up their networks, and deploy 5G services.

“While we estimate there are <50K outdoor small cells that have been deployed thus far, they have taken in many cases a year for them to be approved and have largely been done to improve congestion and thus have provided an immediate benefit,” wrote the Wall Street analysts at Cowen and Company in a report to investors earlier this month. “By comparison, true 5G is expected to require hundreds of thousands of small cells of which they will likely provide diminishing returns to phone users and thus outside new business models/opportunities for carriers will prove uneconomical. The issue however is this creates a chicken and egg situation where they risk building a network before it is clear how they will monetize it.”

The analysts continued: “To take such a risk, carriers will need to be able to deploy much quicker and much cheaper than the first <50K otherwise it’s highly likely they won’t do it. As such, there is a high level of importance on solving the regulatory issues that carriers who have deployed small cells have faced thus far. As one carrier noted, in some cases municipalities have asked the carriers to prove there is an issue that requires the build out of small cells, noting simplistically their phones seem to be working just fine. Ignoring the logic that carriers aren’t in the business of pouring money into a network if they don’t need to, this way of thinking shows the lack of understanding around 5G that currently exists and is something all stakeholders will need to do a better job of improving if the vision of true 5G is to be realized.”