The latest Pro Panel by Inside Towers entitled “5G Infrastructure Strategy” tackled many issues facing mobile network operators as they plan and deploy their 5G networks. The key takeaway from the discussion was that there are a lot of opportunities for MNOs and their vendors, and the long-term outlook is positive despite some near-term issues.
The U.S. wireless industry consists of many moving parts. Recent FCC auctions offered highly valued mid-band spectrum in the C-band and Citizens Broadband Radio Service before that. There is a lot of buzz around new technologies like Open RAN, mobile edge computing, and network slicing. New funding programs have been rolled out for improving wireless connectivity, especially in rural areas. We have a new administration and a changing of the guard at the FCC.
With 4Q20 earnings now being reported, we are getting a look at year-end 2020 results from the MNOs, tower companies and their vendors, along with their outlook for 2021 and related capital spending plans. And on top of all that, we’re still in a pandemic.
The big question is: what to expect, and what to watch for, with 5G deployments in 2021?
On January 27, I moderated a panel of industry veterans: Danny Agresta, President and CEO, APC Towers, Jennifer Alvarez, CEO, Aurora Insight, Scott Jackson, National Market Manager-Broadband, Graybar and Jim Neuens, VP/GM-Wireless Field Test Instrumentation, VIAVI Solutions.
These distinguished panelists brought a mix of expertise and experience in building and managing towers (APC Towers), RF infrastructure database services (Aurora Insight), supply chain logistics (Graybar), and field test and measurement (VIAVI Solutions).
The discussion revolved around three main questions: Is carrier 5G rollout progressing as you expected? Where are carriers mainly investing in their network infrastructure for 5G? What issues need to be addressed to enable an efficient 5G network build?
All concurred that 5G will take time to roll out. Many factors are impacting deployments, from network planning to site commissioning. These factors include delayed carrier capital spending, especially in the aftermath of the T-Mobile/Sprint deal, municipal approvals processes impacted by COVID-19, supply chain issues where fiber demand is outpacing supply, and the need for more qualified field technicians.
An audience poll asked: What are the biggest hurdles to 5G deployments? Two-thirds cited local permitting and licensing authorization, and carrier capex limits as the main speed bumps.
Graybar’s Jackson pointed out, “A lot of municipalities and carriers are on opposing sides in the lobbying area. I think they’ll come together and work it out…The pole attachment issue has been constantly in the news…so we have to walk a fine line. There’s two sides to every story.”
A participant asked about the impact that mid-band C-band and CBRS spectrum will have on new antennas and infrastructure.
While mid-band spectrum is considered the “sweet spot” for propagation and coverage, the panel emphasized that it is not without challenges. “With CBRS, there’s spectrum sharing and with C-band, the spectrum has to be cleared. … There really are some technical challenges and regulatory challenges for having this transition of satellite companies to that higher band and then populating the C-band,” Aurora Insight’s Alvarez pointed out. “There’s spectrum clearing, then all the [C-band] network planning that has to go on.”
A second poll asked the audience: How do you think network investment will go in the next 6-12 months? Nearly 45 percent indicated that the outlook was promising, with investment expected across the board.
APC Towers’ Agresta offered an outlook on the infrastructure business. “We’re very optimistic. We think tailwinds are brewing. 2021 will be a grind, sort of flat with 2020. But we’re preparing and getting everything ready … in line for 2022.”
“We’re seeing a lot of creativity within the operators to get as much out of existing fiber in the ground,” says VIAVI’s Neuens. “They are using some pretty novel WDM technology to couple wireless infrastructure [into fiber]. Test and measurement is an enabling technology [for 5G] … to drive efficiency and effectiveness in that whole [deployment] process.”
A replay of the entire session is available on the Inside Towers website.
Stay tuned for announcements on our next Pro Panel.
By John Celentano, Inside Towers Business Editor