Small cell business ‘robust’ as vendors turn toward connecting bigger buildings

ExteNet Systems recently boasted of the small cells it deployed in San Francisco on light poles and other elements. Source: ExteNet Systems

LAS VEGAS – Small cell providers are “busy bees” these days, according to a new report from Wells Fargo, and one vendor described indoor cellular connections (powered in part by small cells) as the “fourth amenity” for property owners, behind electricity, water and heating/air conditioning.

“Our sense is small cell activity remains very robust with all four carriers spending on this initiative. The focus of this spend seems to vary among the carriers,” wrote Jennifer Fritzsche of Wells Fargo in a new report on the topic. “For the two large incumbents we believe they have accepted more of a turn-key model approach for small cells. This should benefit companies like ExteNet and CCI. Carriers like Sprint have taken a non-traditional approach.”

Interestingly, Fritzsche specifically pointed to a recent meeting with Sprint’s small cell vendor Mobilitie as an indication of progress in the small cell arena. “Based on this meeting we remain confident S is doing more than meets the eye in taking a surgical approach to its network and deploying its 2.5 GHz spectrum. While we recognize there is a healthy amount of skepticism about this strategy, something is clearly working as best evidenced by Sprint's improving results from third-party independent network evaluators.”

Tim Ayers, VP of global services for network installation and management company ExteNet Systems, said his company continues to see growing interest in small cells from top wireless operators. In an interview here at the CTIA Super Mobility trade show, he said operators in general are working to address rising consumer demand for data and the resulting network traffic, and that small cells are “a potentially more speedy, a more expedient, way to meet that need.”

Interestingly, he said demand for small cells and other in-building wireless solutions are also coming from property owners and real estate companies keen on providing wireless services inside of larger buildings. “There is the whole class of big buildings that are dying to get this ‘fourth amenity,’” he said.

Ayers said ExteNet Systems operates roughly 300 networks and counts more than 16,000 nodes.

Despite all the noise around small cells and other network densification techniques, the devices themselves remain relatively scarce: The total number of small nodes in operation in the U.S. currently stands at a mere 30,000, according to a recent estimate from MoffettNathanson.

Related articles:
Small cells: Still plenty of potential despite big challenges
AT&T execs shy away from providing small cell deployment goals, but open to neutral hosts

Article updated Sept. 16 with clarification from ExteNet.