Verizon's wireless network so far has been mostly bifurcated between small cells and macro cell sites. According to CTO Kyle Malady, the operator exclusively uses small cells for its highband, millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum buildout and macro cell sites for its lowband spectrum deployments.
But that's going to change as Verizon deploys midband spectrum like the 3.5GHz CBRS band and, potentially, the C-band, which stretches from 3.7GHz to 4.2GHz.
"I think the midband, it ends up being a mixed bag," Malady told Light Reading during a recent interview. "Our lowband stuff is clearly macro cell only. Our millimeter wave is basically small cell, only. The stuff in the middle, you can do both. You can have both macro coverage and small cell coverage [with midband spectrum], depending on the need, as well as in-building coverage."
Macro sites are the traditional cell towers that dot city skylines, and are often 100 feet tall or more. Small cells are newer cell site designs that often sit atop buildings or light poles and typically sport equipment no bigger than a pizza box.
Malady said that Verizon's ongoing deployment of its new midband CBRS spectrum holdings highlights this approach: "I think there were a lot of folks who thought our CBRS would just be in little small cells in cities. But that's not the case. We have it on macro sites as well."
However, Malady was careful to discuss midband spectrum in general and not the C-band specifically, considering the FCC has strict rules preventing executives at companies participating in its ongoing C-band spectrum auction from publicly discussing the event.
Nonetheless, Malady's comments are important in light of the incredible demand for midband spectrum in the C-band. With around $78 billion in gross proceeds so far, the FCC's C-band auction is blasting past all expectations, and is now by far the agency's biggest spectrum auction ever.
There are some signs that C-band bidding may soon start slowing. For example, the financial analysts at New Street Research wrote in a note to investors Tuesday that there is no more excess C-band demand in top US markets for prime licenses, indicating "significant further price action is unlikely." And LightShed Partners analyst Walter Piecyk tweeted Tuesday morning that there were no more bids on the auction's valuable A Block licenses, which are scheduled to be available to winners as early as this year. "Could be the first sign that bidding could slow," Piecyk wrote.
Verizon is widely expected to walk away with virtually all of the A Block spectrum in the FCC's C-band auction of midband spectrum, a move that would allow the company to begin building a C-band network as early as the end of this year. And Verizon would undoubtedly put billions of dollars into its C-band buildout, given the cost of cell tower access, technicians' labor and suitable radios.
Some analysts are arguing Verizon will need to move quickly.
"If Verizon spends $25-30 billion on C-band licenses. I think we can be confident that they aren't at all comfortable with their current spectrum position; they view closing the spectrum gap below 6GHz as critical," argued New Street analyst Jonathan Chaplin in a note to investors during the holidays.
"3GHz bands can support wide channels, massive MIMO and beamforming better than spectrum at 2GHz and lower, which allows for faster speeds," he continued. "We estimate that 3GHz bands deployed with 5G will deliver 20-25% more capacity than carrier spectrum at 2GHz and lower because of the same massive MIMO and beamforming benefits enjoyed by 3GHz. This ought to justify a premium over prices paid for lower frequencies."
But how Verizon constructs a 5G network in C-band spectrum is incredibly important to its suppliers. After all, some tower companies have focused heavily on macro sites while some network equipment suppliers are focusing heavily on small cells.
Thus, Malady's comments on Verizon's overall approach to a network buildout using midband spectrum indicates there may be a little something for everyone.
"Executing on small cells while returning to macro tower investment should not be hard," wrote the analysts at LightShed Partners in a note to investors Monday on the likelihood of Verizon deploying C-band spectrum on macro cell sites. "However, it's reasonable to expect that its capital budget will not rise materially to cover an aggressive strategy for both. The shift to macro investment is inevitable for a company who has been reducing its activity with macro tower companies for the past five years."
"I'm really happy with what the government's done in putting the midband spectrum up [for auction]," Malady said in discussing Verizon's overall network buildout efforts. "This is a highly competitive market. And this market is one of the few markets in the world that is pushing the technology forward. And I think in this market, that's pushing the technology forward, you can look at Verizon as the leader in really pushing the technology envelope and seeing what's possible, and then bringing that to the marketplace. Which is good for us, it's good for the [operator's customer] segments, it's good for the industry. And frankly, at the end of the day, it's good for the United States."
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