For all the talk about 5G, operators still prefer to keep some things to themselves, such as exactly how many 5G cell sites they’re deploying.
Sure, they’ll make broad statements about their investments and intentions to eventually blanket the country with 5G. When it launched its 5G service at the end of 2019, T-Mobile said it had deployed more than 25,000 new towers and cell sites to provide 5G to 200 million points of presence (PoPs). Still, it’s not disclosing exactly how many 5G cell sites it’s deployed and their exact locations.
CTIA, which lobbies for the big wireless carriers in the U.S., has estimated the industry may need more than 800,000 small cells by 2026. But you’re not going to get the individual companies to readily reveal exactly how many 5G cell sites—macro plus small cells and everything in between—they’re deploying.
Queried by Fierce, spokespersons for AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon declined to provide exact figures on the number of 5G sites they’ve deployed.
That’s nothing new in wireless. Wireless operators are notoriously competitive with that kind of information and have considered that proprietary information from the get-go.
Looking at small cells
That said, last year analysts at the Wall Street investment firm MoffettNathanson, relying on public record requests, conducted extensive research into the number of small cells deployed in some of the nation’s largest cities.
MoffettNathanson obtained detailed data for about 15,000 small cell locations across New York, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Sacramento and Cincinnati. While acknowledging that the data was imperfect and didn’t completely reveal the inner workings of small cell networks, they concluded on a high level that while small cells were growing like weeds, the expectations for their long-term return potential probably should be tempered.
They also found that Verizon had deployed 391 small cells across Sacramento as of last spring, of which at least 273 were being used for 5G, with the remainder appearing to be for 4G service only. They also noted the sheer magnitude of the challenge facing Verizon in scaling a 5G network using primarily millimeter wave spectrum—the real question being not whether they can make the technology work, but whether the economics will pencil out for an acceptable return on capital.
Interestingly, one company that is not quite a wireless player as of yet—Dish Network—has made some revelations about its greenfield 5G network plans. The settlement that Dish reached with the government would have T-Mobile and Sprint making available to Dish at least 20,000 cell sites; Dish has committed to deploying a nationwide 5G network that covers 70% of the U.S. population by June 2023.
Of course, that’s contingent on the court approving the T-Mobile/Sprint merger, which is being tried in Judge Victor Marrero’s court at the U.S. District Court Southern District of New York. During the trial, it was discussed that Dish expects to build 10,000 towers by the end of 2022.
Sprint, whose fate is being decided one way or another through that trial, did say that it has “thousands” of 5G Massive MIMO macro sites on air today across its nine 5G cities. “Since launching commercial 5G service we have continued to light up new sites in our nine 5G markets—in August we were at approximately 11 million people covered with Sprint 5G, and [at the] end of October we announced we’d hit approximately 16 million people covered,” a spokesperson said.
Notably, the spokesperson said Sprint currently doesn’t use 5G small cells, but it’s exploring the feasibility of potentially adding an underlay 5G small cell network to its 5G macro network.
It's worth noting that Sprint’s 64T64R 5G Massive MIMO radios are deployed on its existing 4G macro cell sites, providing a nearly identical footprint for both 2.5 GHz LTE and 5G NR coverage. For Sprint, the size of Massive MIMO equipment is not a challenge at 2.5 GHz; the size of the equipment is dictated by physics of the spectrum band that's being used. Sprint CTO John Saw has said that contrary to the name, its Massive MIMO gear is not any bigger than existing equipment.