Tower companies bullish on small cells, edge compute in 2023

As U.S. 5G wireless operator deployments progress from widespread coverage to densification of the networks, the three big public tower companies are anticipating 2023 will be less about 5G macro network coverage and more about small cells and edge computing.  

During SBA Communications 3Q earnings call with investors, executives noted that in in the U.S. each of its wireless operator customers were very active in 3Q building out their 5G networks in their mid-band spectrum. Jeffrey Stoops, SBA’s president and CEO also said that SBA customer Dish Networks is focusing on meeting its June 2023 FCC buildout requirement of covering 70% of the U.S. population. “Based on everything we can tell, they are in a very good position to do that,” he added.

Besides 5G mid-band spectrum buildouts, SBA is focused on growing its edge computing site portfolio. Stoops said that SBA has 30 to 40 edge computing sites in operation or under construction. He said that the key to building these facilities has been making sure that they are close to existing fiber, which makes them more attractive. Stoops noted that these sites have not yet produced much in the way of financial gains but he said the company is “encouraged by what we’ve seen.”

Stoops added that those edge computing sites that SBA is building have a fairly small footprint and look similar to wireless shelters. These sites have air conditioning and power and racks for equipment. He estimated they cost around $100,000 to build but added that the price-tag can go up depending upon their size and capabilities.

American Tower also has invested in edge computing but took a very different approach by purchasing CoreSite for $10.1 billion in 2021. CoreSite’s portfolio consisted of 25 data centers, 21 cloud on-ramps and more than 32,000 interconnections in the U.S. American has viewed the acquisition as being core to its edge computing aspirations. During the company’s 3Q earnings call with investors, American Tower President and CEO Tom Bartlett said that CoreSite is attracting new business from enterprises. But he also added that American has identified more than 1,000 sites with its U.S. tower portfolio that are “shovel-ready” candidates for a mobile edge deployment based upon their location and their proximity to fiber and power.

“Over the next several months we plan to break ground on our first 1 megawatt edge facility and an owned tower site to build upon our understanding of market demand and customer requirements,” he added. The goal of building an edge computing site in addition to the CoreSite properties is to show that American can deliver different edge compute solutions to different types of customers, he added.

Crown Castle is also a big proponent of edge networking with its investment in Vapor IO however during the company’s 3Q call with investors, the tower company was more focused on small cell momentum. Jay Brown, CEO of Crown, said that Crown expects to double the rate of small cell deployments in 2023 to 10,000, up from 5,000 this year.

That projection comes after the tower company made a similar projection in 2021 when it said that it expected to rollout 10,000 small cells and then later in the year had to revise that projection to just 5,000 small cells as the large U.S. operators focused more on their macro deployments rather than small cells. In 2022 the company also expects to deploy around 5,000 small cells.

But it appears that 2023 may finally be the year of the small cell. Brown said that the company believes that 5G deployed at macro towers alone will not be sufficient to keep up with the growth of mobile data and as a result operators will need to build denser networks with small cells. “We expect to double the rate of small cell deployments next year, compared to the 5,000 nodes we expect to install this year, to meet the growing demand for our customers,” Brown said.

Brown added that Crown has received commitments from Verizon and T-Mobile to eventually have 50,000 “nodes” on air and he expects that small cell growth will accelerate in 2024 and beyond.

Interestingly, Brown said the tower company is also working with cable companies on their mobile strategies, which include small cells and he said that new opportunities for tower leasing and small cells are not just limited to mobile operators and cable companies. “We’ve seen an uptick in the last couple of years of customers outside what you would traditionally think of …. We think that’s a growing opportunity.”