AT&T execs shy away from providing small cell deployment goals, but open to neutral hosts

A top AT&T executive declined to provide specific figures for the operator’s small cell deployment efforts, explaining instead that the carrier is using the devices only in locations where they make the most economic sense. Further, AT&T expects to deploy small cell services on both equipment it owns outright as well as on equipment shared with another carrier or owned by a third party.

AT&T’s position on small cells is noteworthy considering all of the nation’s top carriers are in various stages of deploying the devices into their respective networks in order to improve speeds and densify their systems. Although small cells have been a topic of discussion for years in the wireless industry, operators appear to be in the midst of significant deployments of the devices this year as they put the finishing touches on their LTE networks and prepare for 5G deployments in the years ahead.

Indeed, AT&T’s Bill Smith said that small cells will play a major role in the deployment of 5G networks. “If you look at some of the propagation characteristics of some of the 5G spectrum bands, there’s going to be a lot of small cell deployment there. So small cells are going to be a very important part of our future, and we’re very committed to them,” said Smith, AT&T’s president of technology operations, in comments at the 18th Annual Pacific Crest Global Technology Leadership Forum.

However, Smith explained that AT&T won’t provide small cell deployment targets. “I don’t really want to put a target out in the public domain that we’re going to deploy X number of small cells because that’s not the way we should be doing this,” he said. “What we should be doing is, as we design and engineer and manage the capacity of our network, we should see where a small cell is most cost effective solution. And if it is, let’s use a small cell.”

Smith’s comments are notable considering AT&T last year said it would no longer would deploy 40,000 small cells on its network by the end of 2015, a goal that had been a key element of its Project Velocity IP (VIP) network initiative. Instead, the carrier said in 2015 that its acquisition of Leap Wireless removed the need to deploy as many small cells as it originally had planned because the deal gave AT&T more macro cell sites for capacity.

“If you’ve got a macro network but there happens to be a pocket of demand within that footprint, small cells are a very efficient want to solve that problem,” Smith said. “Let’s use them where appropriate and not set some artificial objective to deploy X numbers.”

In his comments this week, Smith added that most of AT&T’s small cell deployments to date have been indoors because the carrier is waiting for a suitable, “hardened” outdoor small cell to become available. Vendors including Nokia, Ericsson and others sell various small cells.

In separate comments at the Cowen and Company 2nd Annual Communications Infrastructure Summit this week, AT&T’s Tom Keathley agreed that small cells are a complement to macro cell sites. “If you’re trying to provide coverage and capacity for a rural area, the only really effective way to do that is with a macro site,” said Keathley, AT&T’s SVP for wireless network architecture and design. “If, on the other hand, you’re trying to solve an issue that’s in a dense, urban area, and you can’t get a macro in, and if you can place a small cell in the right location, one small cell can be far more economic than a large cell site. So it really is dependent on what you’re trying to fix. There’s going to be room for macro sites in the future, but because of this massive growth in mobility data, a lot of that growth coming in the urban, suburban areas, that’s where small cells make a lot of sense.”

Keathley added that AT&T is open to using small cells that are owned by third parties.

“With a neutral host small cell, that’s a technology that’s rather nascent, but you are going to see that evolve over time,” he said. “If the cost could be shared in a neutral host scenario, that could tilt the decision that way. It would really depend on a case by case basis. Our attempt nationally is to always pick the lowest cost megabyte solution for the problem we’re trying to solve.”

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