In order to deliver more bandwidth to each user, 5G architectures depend on using more spectrum and more cell densification. More cells in a given area means that more users can be supported than with 4G networks. This is why most 5G discussions include ‘densification’ and the need for many more small cells.
However, in the U.S., at present, this poses a problem. Deploying small cells has continued to prove problematic, mainly due to the zoning and planning issues. With multiple jurisdictions to deal with, mobile operators and others trying to locate small cells have run into multiple roadblocks. While some potential fixes at state and federal levels are in the works, problems persist.
This is not to suggest that no small cells are being deployed; they are, as our research numbers and forecasts show. The problem is that there are not enough small cells to support the densification needs of 5G. While estimates vary depending on who you talk to, iGR estimates that 5G will eventually need about 10 times as many outdoor small cells as have been currently built. Think hundreds of thousands, not tens of thousands.
At present, it is taking about two years (sometimes less but that is a good average) to get permission to build small cells. The actual build takes a few days. So unless things change quickly and the time to get permission to build reduces significantly, if mobile operators want a significant number of 5G small cells in 2019 and 2020, the process needs to start now.
In conversations with mobile operators the belief is that, assuming the current LTE small cells can be upgraded without additional zoning permission, there are sufficient LTE small cells at present to support the initial 5G deployments. The problem comes after this initial ‘inventory’ is exhausted and greenfield 5G small cells are required.
Could the problems with zoning small cells delay or significantly impact 5G network builds? Yes, they could. But likely not until late 2020 or 2021 depending on the jurisdiction. Some cities and towns are allowing operators to build small cells, and these locations will therefore likely benefit from 5G sooner. But those cities that block small cells will, as a result, have to wait to get the full benefit from 5G.