U.S. counts more than 417K cell sites as of 2020

As carriers densify networks and build out 5G, the number of cell sites in the U.S. grew to 417,215 by the end of 2020, according to a survey from CTIA.

CTIA, a wireless industry group representing carriers and others in the mobile ecosystem, released topline results of an annual survey (PDF) focused on wireless investment. The group highlighted that 67,871 cell sites turned on between 2018 and 2020, totaling more than the previous seven years combined. CTIA indicated changes in federal cell siting rules, made by the Federal Communications Commission in 2018, helped drive growth.

Not all, particularly local governments, were happy with changes, which included orders aimed at streamlining infrastructure deployments and small cells with limits on fees and timelines for siting approval processes, among other provisions. The City of Portland, along with several others, filed a federal lawsuit against the FCC orders that preempt regulations by local authorities, and in August 2020 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals handed the wireless industry a win when it largely upheld the FCC changes, save for some aesthetic-related regulations on small cells.

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The orders, including limits on excessive fees for new wireless sites, would save carriers $2 billion as they deployed 5G gear, the FCC had argued.

In CTIA’s latest survey, the group said investment in wireless networks reached a five-year high in 2020, with $29.9 billion in capital spending.  The U.S. mobile industry accounted for 18% of the world’s total mobile capex last year, but only 5.9% of global mobile connections.

Mobile traffic also increased in 2020, to 42.2 trillion megabytes – a 208% increase since 2016.

This year AT&T and Verizon are preparing to deploy C-band spectrum for 5G in the U.S. when it’s ready, expected to be in December.  and T-Mobile continues to roll out mid-band 2.5 GHz. While small cells were a major focus for deploying millimeter wave, macro sites have been pegged as the most efficient way to deploy mid-band.

Verizon expects to deploy between 7,000 and 8,000 new sites for C-band this year.

In reporting second-quarter earnings last week, tower company Crown Castle cut projections for small cell deployments for 2021 and 2022, decreasing to 5,000 from the previously expected 10,000 each year. Company executives said it wasn’t due to a lack of demand, but in part because macro sites are again being prioritized by carriers. Crown Castle said cancelled Sprint small cell orders and continued zoning and permitting challenges also impacted the outlook.  

A July market forecast from the Small Cell Forum noted slightly slower deployment of small cells globally than anticipated a year ago for the 2020-2022 period. The Covid-19 pandemic increased the need for mobile infrastructure, helping to drive increased investment starting later in 2022, according to the report.

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“However, in 2020 and 2021 this was offset, in the outdoor environment, by disruption to labor and site access because of lockdowns, and in the enterprise, by delays to workplace upgrades as a result of work-from-home policies,” the report stated. It expects a strong recovery in 2022 driven by 5G upgrades.

By 2026, the report projects the industry will have cumulatively deployed 35.7 million radio units, around 10% higher than its previously forecast. The Small Cell Forum report said small cells are counted in radio units – which can be integrated small cells or remote radio units. It also includes distributed antenna systems (DAS) and distributed radio systems (DRS), with residential femtocells and Wi-Fi only networks excluded.