Minneapolis’ Super Bowl LII stands as proving ground for small cell deployments

Roughly a year after the city passed legislation streamlining the deployment of small cells in Minneapolis, some of the nation’s largest carriers are trumpeting their small cell counts there in advance of  Super Bowl LII.

Specifically, Verizon said it now counts more than 230 permanent small cell sites in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul market. T-Mobile, for its part, said it has deployed more than 120 small cells “throughout the city, stadium and surrounding venues to provide additional coverage and speed inside buildings and other places that can be difficult for typical towers to reach.” Sprint in December said it expects to deploy around 200 small cells across the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul area by the time the Super Bowl starts. And AT&T said in November it had already deployed “a number” of small cells in Minneapolis, and that it would “add more in the next few months.”

It's unclear whether the operators are including the same small cells in their respective counts; operators typically do not disclose such information. Although small cell vendors continue to push for so-called small cell colocation—where one device services multiple carriers—most in the industry agree that trend isn’t yet catching fire.

Further, at least one vendor is claiming action in the market. "“ExteNet is heavily involved in upgrading the cellular infrastructure in the twin cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul for the 2018 Big Game, and is involved in deploying >400 small cells for multiple national wireless carriers to address communication needs for today and the future," the company said in a statement issued to FierceWireless.

Those numbers are worth counting considering Minnesota legislators in June passed regulations aimed at speeding up the deployment of small cells in the area. AT&T even issued a press release at the time congratulating the governor for signing the legislation into law, and promising that it would “accelerate its deployment of small cells in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, especially as the company enhances its network in preparation for the ‘Big Game’ in February 2018.”

According to a detailed report on the legislation from AGL, the law sets fees for small cell attachments to municipal structures at $150-a-year, plus $25 for maintenance and electricity costs. The bill also will allow small cell deployment as a permitted use in most public rights-of-way, and it requires officials to rule on applications for small cell deployments within 90 days.

“It just lays down a nice groundwork of regulation and price certainty so that the cell providers can come in and actually build this amazing infrastructure out," Rep. Marion O'Neill, one of the authors of the legislation, told local news outlet Kare11 in September.

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. Indeed, Crown Castle’s CEO said last year that 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.

But some expect small cell momentum to accelerate in the coming months and years. “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.

Article updated Jan. 22 with a statement from ExteNet