Small Cell Forum sees 5G-powered growth after 2022

The Small Cell Forum (SCF) has published its latest market forecast report, covering the 2019‑2016 period. It makes for pretty good reading if you're a small-cell supplier.

Apart from a slightly slower small-cell deployment than anticipated between 2020 and 2022 when the SCF conducted its last operator survey and forecast in Q1 2020 – pandemic-induced lockdowns getting in the way of rollout – there is healthy, 5G-fueled growth when taking the 2019 to 2026 forecast period as a whole.

After canvasing some 84 operators and 33 other organizations, including neutral host providers, private network operators and cable and fixed-line operators, SCF predicts industry will have deployed a total 35.7 million "radio units" (SCF terminology for small cells) by the end of 2026.

Small things: Roll out of small cells slowed due to COVID-19 - but growth is still health, according to the SCF.  (Source:  Rohanmkth  on Wikimedia CommonsCC4.0)
Small things: Roll out of small cells slowed due to COVID-19 - but growth is still health, according to the SCF.
(Source: Rohanmkth on Wikimedia CommonsCC4.0)

It's about 10% more than forecast in SCF's previous report, although with greater weighting towards mid-decade.

5G drivers

The rising pace of deployments and upgrades to support 5G (alone or alongside 4G), said SCF, will be the key driver of accelerated rollout after 2022. 5G small cells, it predicts, will have a 77% CAGR in the 2019 to 2026 forecast period.

Although 4G is currently still the small cell "workhorse" in the enterprise segment, underpinning a sharp uptick in deployments in 2019-21, SCF expects a combination of factors to drive a new wave of enterprise investment based on 5G from 2023 onwards.

"This will be less about upgrades to 4G networks, and more about new build-outs to support enterprise use cases that are very 5G-reliant, such as ultra-low latency mobile robotics; or extensions to WiFi or wireline networks to add 5G functionality, such as high speed hand-off," said the report.

From 2022, SCF also expects to see the start of growth in 5G deployments for ultra-dense environments, such as transport hubs, and to support mission-critical smart city applications. "There will be heavy correlation to investment in edge cloud infrastructure by operators, either directly or via public cloud partnerships," maintained SCF.

Other small cell trends

SCF points out that as small cells need to address increasingly diverse requirements from different industries and use cases, flexible, "cloud-based architectures will become essential." Two thirds of deployers are apparently expecting to adopt small cell vRAN by 2025. One driver of vRAN expansion, adds SCF, is open small cell architectures, which are expected to account for 77% of new deployments in 2026.

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SCF also anticipates strong support for its "Split 6" option in the enterprise and industrial environments, where, according to the forecast report, it will be adopted by 58% of deployers by 2024.

Small cell deployments in shared spectrum are expected to overtake those in licensed bands in 2025.

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— Ken Wieland, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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