Small Cell Forum (SCF), an industry organization, today released their latest report titled “Small Cells Market Forecast”, as of July 2021, which discusses the market status and SCF’s deployment forecast for small cells globally. Below we summarize select portions of Small Cell Forum’s report.

Small cells, once broadly rolled-out, are key enablers of high-performance and affordable wireless connectivity for industries, enterprises, and communities – both urban and rural. Additionally, the emergence of alternative deployment models is accelerating this roll-out, including:

  • Neutral Hosts: providers taking this approach are Crown Castle, ExteNet Systems, Boingo Wireless, Mobilitie, and American Tower
  • Private Networks: indoor opportunity to provide enterprise solutions, particularly in conjunction with new 5G spectrum, such as CBRS and C-band

Overall, the applications for small cells have expanded dramatically, from historically being focused on residential environments. Presently, use cases include enabling urban densification and supporting emerging industrial 5G use cases.

Small Cells – State of the Industry

Small Cell Forum notes that current small cell build-outs remain focused on 4G/LTE. However, there is an increasing commitment in the industry to being 5G-ready.

Specifically, interest in small cell networks is coming from enterprises that are planning to adopt complex cellular applications, often alongside edge computing. For example, enterprises which have use cases that require ultra-low latency or enhanced reliability, need the capabilities of 5G.

5G Deployments To-Date

Wireless carriers have largely made their initial 5G deployments using macro towers. However, Small Cell Forum forecasts that 5G densification will begin to occur in markets where user demand is outpacing spectrum capacity. In particular, major cities of China, the United States, Japan, and Taiwan are facing this dilemma.

Availability of new spectrum and more flexible licensing regimes, that allow for spectrum sharing, will enable 5G adoption to increase. In turn, these factors will facilitate enterprise, urban, and rural deployments by providers other than the traditional wireless carriers. Ultimately, more spectrum and more flexibility will increase the overall pace for the build-out of small cells.

Network Sharing and Neutral Hosts

Deployment and operating models for small cell networks are also shifting to address the current market need. For example, certain environments, such as in-building enterprise networks and rural deployments, can be difficult for wireless carriers to economically address. This is due to the fact that wireless carrier business models are premised on large-scale networks, providing generic capacity for all users.

In contrast, enterprises often have very specific connectivity requirements. At the same time, rural and remote areas may have an insufficient number of users to make high-capacity networks profitable. Therefore, network sharing and a neutral host approach to building and operating wireless networks becomes the most cost-effective solution.

Small Cell Forum (SCF) – Deployment Forecasts

Small Cell Forum (SCF) incorporates input from wireless carriers, neutral host providers, private network operators, cable companies, and fixed-line operators into its forecast report for the deployment of small cells. Note that all annual small cell projection figures include both new deployments and upgrades.

Small Cell Forum – New Deployments and Upgrades by Environment Forecast to 2026

Small Cells New Deployments and Upgrades Globally to 2026

Annual Deployments

During 2021, Small Cell Forum forecasts that globally, a total of 3.40 million radio units (RUs), known as small cells, will be deployed and upgraded. Of this total, there will be 2.64 million enterprise, 680k urban, and 76k rural small cell deployments and upgrades over the year. During 2022, deployments and upgrades will total 3.95 million for the year, representing 16% growth over the pace in 2021.

Cumulative Deployments

By 2026, Small Cell Forum forecasts the industry will have cumulatively deployed 35.7 million small cells. Over the projection period, the fastest growing sub-sector will be Urban small cells, particularly for outdoor environments. Indeed, a driver of this will be significant densification and smart city projects in large markets of Asia, the United States, and parts of Europe.

However, Enterprise small cells will remain the largest absolute contributor to small cell deployments, throughout the projection period. As a reference point, 3.89 million Enterprise small cells are projected to be deployed in 2026, which equates to 62% of the total.

Geographic Deployments

During 2021, Small Cell Forum forecasts that the North America market will have a total of 748k small cell deployments and upgrades. Additionally, in Europe, there will be a total of 442k small cell deployments and upgrades during 2021. Notably, regulatory barriers are impeding Europe’s deployment of small cells, particularly in outdoor environments.

Small Cell Forum – New Deployments and Upgrades by Geography Forecast to 2026

Small Cells New Deployments and Upgrades By Region to 2026

Overall, Asia will be the largest driver of small cell deployments and upgrades throughout the projection period. Specifically, the first phase of small cell densification was led by Japan and South Korea. However, Small Cell Forum forecasts that activity in small cells by China will drive growth in Asia from 2021 onwards.

Natasha Williams covers Small Cells & DAS (distributed antenna systems) for Dgtl Infra, including Boingo Wireless (NASDAQ: WIFI), ExteNet Systems (private), ZenFi Networks (private), and Freshwave Group (private). Within Small Cells & DAS, Natasha focuses on the sub-sectors of standalone small cells, C-RAN small cells, Enterprise DAS, and DAS.

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