2018 Preview: Small-cell deployments will finally gain ground

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr is leading the agency's wireless infrastructure initiative, which includes small cells.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our 2018 Preview feature, which looks at the big topics facing the industry next year. Click here for the 2018 preview in wireless, click here for the 2018 preview in cable and video, and click here for the 2018 preview in the wireline industry.

The U.S. market for small cells has been shackled as carriers, government agencies and other organizations struggle to develop policies and processes for zoning, siting and deploying them. But the little transmitters are beginning to gain significant—if not exactly dramatic—traction in 2018: T-Mobile recently said it has deals to deploy 28,000 small cells “in the short term,” for instance; Sprint said its MVNO deal with Altice will help it cut through some of the red tape that continues to plague small-cell deployments; and Verizon claimed in March that it had the biggest rollout of small cells of any U.S. operator.

That momentum will only increase in 2018 as carriers and infrastructure vendors increasingly leverage fiber as they densify their networks to ramp up capacity in advance of 5G, according to Wells Fargo Securities.

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“While we saw some early carrier interest and activity building small cells to densify their networks ahead of 5G services, we believe 2018 to really be (the) year where small cells are pursued in earnest,” Jennifer Fritzsche of Wells Fargo wrote recently. “Recall, Crown Castle made a series of fiber acquisitions (FiberNet, Wilcon, Lightower) to pursue the small-cell builds from a different angle than its tower competitors. In our view, Crown Castle stands ready to benefit from densification builds—as this fiber piece is THE critical ingredient in a small-cell process.”

Meanwhile, federal intervention looms on the horizon as the number of skirmishes between local municipalities and states increases. The FCC voted in May to move forward with plans to make it easier for wireless carriers and their partners to deploy small cells in municipalities across the country. The agency approved “an examination of the regulatory impediments” at the state and local levels that can slow the rollout of small cells and other transmitters in an effort to streamline siting and deployment processes.

The FCC’s newest commissioner, Brendan Carr, said last month that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has appointed him to take the lead on the agency’s wireless infrastructure proceeding, including for small cells. Carr also said the agency will later this month on rules aimed at eliminating the need for historic preservation review in cases where telecom providers swap out old equipment with new equipment.

It isn’t clear just how effective the FCC’s effort will be, of course, and it’s possible that the agency won’t be able to significantly accelerate the 18- to 24-month deployment process that Crown Castle CEO Jay Brown cited in September. But deployments are clearly gaining steam as carriers head into the new year.