American Tower: CBRS and C-band are big opportunities on path to 5G

Cellular antennas on tower
American Tower is one of the nation's largest cell tower companies. (Pixabay)

Executives from American Tower, one of the nation’s three largest publicly traded cell tower companies, pointed to the pending availability of wide swathes of midband spectrum as a major new opportunity for the company.

“One of the most compelling aspects of evolving 5G expectations is the role of midband spectrum, including 2.5 GHz, CBRS spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band, and C-band spectrum assets in the 3.7 to 4.2 GHz range,” said James Taiclet, American Tower’s CEO, during the company’s quarterly conference call with investors this week. Taiclet’s comments were included in a Seeking Alpha transcript of the event. “All these bands have the potential to significantly enhance network performance over time and, importantly, are well-suited to macro tower-oriented deployments.”

On CBRS, Taiclet said the spectrum could open up additional opportunities for the company to build wireless networks inside of buildings, stadiums and other venues. “This year's spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band can potentially help significantly expand the U.S. indoor opportunity for American Tower beyond the 1,500 or so venues in the U.S. that we today believe are suitable for traditional indoor DAS systems,” he said. “Being able to dynamically share this spectrum can help drive down costs, and we are working on new and innovative architectures that may make it feasible to bring connectivities in CBRS spectrum to Class A office buildings, condominium complexes and other indoor environments, where DAS has historically been cost prohibitive.”

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The FCC recently voted on final rules to release CBRS 3.5 GHz spectrum for commercial uses; the spectrum had previously been reserved for the U.S. Navy and other military users. As a result, most expect to begin using the GAA lightly licensed portion of the CBRS band as early as this year—however, most expect that the licensed PAL portion of the CBRS band won’t be auctioned until 2020.

As for the C-band—spectrum that is currently owned by satellite companies but that could eventually be released to the cellular industry—Taiclet described it as a “mid- to long-term time horizon” opportunity.

“This band, similar to 2.5 GHz, has crossover benefits that combine potentially several hundred megahertz of bandwidth and sufficient propagation distances to be utilized in suburban settings, which are predominantly served by towers,” Taiclet said.

But CBRS and the C-band aren’t the only opportunities for tower companies like American Tower, Taiclet said. He also pointed to IoT networks, edge computing deployments and even the broadcast industry’s ATSC 3.0 push as efforts that could result in revenues.

“The bottom line is that we see real and long-term opportunity in macro, indoor and possibly outdoor small cells, and we'll use our innovation program to pursue those aggressively and in the disciplined manner that we've always followed,” concluded Taiclet.