American Tower, Philips Lighting team up to hide small cells inside street lights

SAN FRANCISCO—American Tower, one of the largest tower companies in the United States, announced a new partnership with Philips Lighting to build a street light that has a small cell hidden inside. The companies are showing off a prototype of the street light here at the Mobile World Congress Americas trade show, with the goal of getting cities to agree to install the wireless-capable light poles.

Importantly, the action represents a further step by American Tower into the small cell game. The company mainly has focused on its portfolio on macro cell towers, although it also has roughly 350 DAS (distributed antenna system) sites across the country. The company’s new agreement with Philips Lighting, a major supplier of lighting for cities, for light poles represents another step by American Tower into the network densification business.

Indeed, network densification is an important trend for wireless carriers, which are generally working to densify their networks with DAS, small cells and other techniques in order to add more capacity to their systems.

American Tower’s move into small cells is also noteworthy considering its tower rival Crown Castle was an early and vocal proponent of small cells. Indeed, Crown Castle has spent billions of dollars acquiring various fiber providers, including, most recently, Lightower, in large part to supply backhaul connections to small cells.

“Consistent with what our customers are saying, we are seeing small cell demand accelerate as evidenced by our first quarter announcement of our record 25,000 contracted small cell node pipeline, and we believe the long-term opportunity could match towers in size and return,” Crown Castle’s Jay Brown said during the company’s recent quarterly conference call, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of the event.

Patrice McAree, American Tower’s VP of innovation, explained here that American Tower’s new deal with Philips Lighting for small cell-capable street lights doesn’t necessary reflect a change in American Tower’s strategy, but more of an “augmentation.”

“It’s not a change in direction,” he said here on the sidelines of the MWC Americas show.

McAree said the new small cell-capable street lights will help American Tower meet carrier needs to densify their networks in urban areas, but that it doesn’t mean the company plans to go on a fiber-buying spree like Crown Castle.

According to American Tower and Philips Lighting, there are 44 million street lights in the United States, and only 12% of those have been converted to the more efficient LED lighting technology. Further, the companies cited Gartner data that predicted street lights will be the primary type of network infrastructure for 80% of smart city deployments.

These figures, the companies said, indicate demand and potential for their new small cell-capable light pole.

“What we want to do is enable the cities to have options,” McAree said.

McAree explained that American Tower and Philips Lighting would offer the “connected” light pole for free to cities. He explained though that the “free” aspect of the light pole wasn’t necessarily a major selling point, as large cities typically operate hundreds of thousands of light poles and only one in ten or one in twenty might need to include small cell capability, based on wireless carriers’ network design requirements.

That said, McAree explained that American Tower’s new “smart pole” would allow wireless carriers to quickly and easily densify their networks, and would allow cities to install small cells without any change to their local aesthetics. He explained that the companies’ light pole can support 4G services today from up to two carriers, but in the future the light poles could support additional carriers, including IoT providers, as well as future 5G services. McAree said the American Tower/Philips Lighting light poles are expected to be commercially available in early 2018.

Cities across the country have been struggling to approve small cell deployments, partly due to concerns that the devices would be an eyesore to residents and visitors. The situation has grated on wireless carriers and others, which have bemoaned sluggish small cell deployments due to cities’ deployment regulations. For its part, American Tower’s McAree said the company would adhere to local regulations regarding small cells, but pointed out the devices would essentially be hidden inside the light poles.