Small Cells, Big Business: Fiber Investment Is as Important as Ever

Like many technology markets, telecom has always been a hotbed of hype. Somebody is always talking up the latest and greatest technology that will revolutionize the market. Not too long ago, it was fiber-to-the-home (FTTH). Recently, wireless has been getting all the attention.

As Google Fiber slowed its fiber construction, it bought a small—tiny, actually—wireless internet service provider, leading everyone to conclude that FTTH was passé and wireless would replace it. Recently, Microsoft said it was working on rural broadband using “white space,” the name given to Wi-Fi over the frequencies made available by television’s move to digital broadcasting. Cellular service providers talked about nothing but 5G cellular and its impressive capabilities.

News articles proclaimed the end of fiber and that wireless was the future. This was, of course, a gross exaggeration. Reading more deeply into tech news, you find articles about large users inking billion-dollar contracts for future fiber delivery. That’s a sure sign of tightening supplies, something the fiber industry has not seen since the late 1990s. You also can read about fiber and cabling manufacturers increasing capacity to keep up with demand.

Even FTTH is growing quite well. Verizon focused the installation of FiOS on such large cities as Boston and New York. AT&T is expanding its FTTH programs to keep up with competitors, mainly cable TV companies, that also are expanding their fiber backbones. Cities, electrical utilities and independent providers are building FTTH systems around the country.

Another reason fiber is booming is actually tied to the growing wireless market. The 5G wireless technology everybody is talking about is based on a new concept—small cells. If you are familiar with distributed antenna systems (DAS) used in large public facilities such as sport stadiums and convention centers, you can understand small cells.

Like DAS, small cells are low-power sites covering a very limited area, typically installed outdoors in cities and suburbs to cover a city block or so. Small cells have numerous advantages over regular cell sites. Because they are smaller, they can be installed on streetlight or traffic signal poles. Since most manufacturers are creating quite attractive antennas, they generally do not get complaints from citizens about their appearance. And, since they cover a smaller area, fewer people connect to each cell, and that means each user has more available bandwidth.

Right now, cellular service providers and cities are aggressively developing small cell networks. However, it’s not a simple job. Because small cells cover such small service areas, you need many cell sites. Densely populated Santa Monica, Calif., has plans for about 600 small cell sites in an area of only 9 square miles. The suburban city of Carlsbad, Calif., will have about 150 sites spread over 20 square miles. Lowell, Mass., at 14 square miles, is supposed to get 70 small cell sites, and, in that case, it is proposed as an alternative to FTTH.

Los Angeles is already installing small cells as part of a streetlight upgrade. Lights are being converted to smart LEDs, and the poles have an expanded area to allow installing small cell sites. The city will end up with thousands of these new smart light/cell site systems. Maybe some also will have video cameras or other sensors being tested as part of larger, more complex “smart cities” programs.

Now for the news you have to dig deeper for: Every one of those small cell sites needs to have two connections—power and fiber. Electrical power needs are small, and every location on a streetlight or traffic signal already has power available, although it will require making connections and perhaps wiring in power conditioning or backup systems. Most locations won’t have fiber connections, however, requiring installation of new fiber optic cables.

All cities have some fiber optic networks. The city may have its own fiber networks serving its needs, plus most cities will have networks from telecom service providers, utilities, internet service providers, CATV companies and more. So far, it looks like most cities need to have a major fiber network upgrade to support small cell installations.

A recent report from management consultant Deloitte used strong language to indicate the urgent need for investment in fiber optics to support 5G. It said the United States will fall behind on 5G without massive fiber investment, and that deep deployment of fiber optics is a national imperative as well as an economic, technological and social imperative. The report is available at

In the fiber business, I hear this all the time. Many people I know are already planning, designing and building metropolitan fiber networks to support this wireless small cell and 5G future.

About the Author

Jim Hayes

Fiber Optics Columnist and Contributing Editor

Jim Hayes is a VDV writer and trainer and the president of The Fiber Optic Association. Find him at

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