2020 Vision: Wireless Infrastructure Industry Leaders Predict Trends for the Coming Year

Ten years ago, 3G was king, but eyes were turning to 4G on the horizon with prototype handsets popping up at trade shows and LTE making its debut. The rise of the smartphone was setting up to change cellular from a service dedicated primarily to voice communications to one dominated by data. The resulting bandwidth demands transformed both wireless infrastructure and spectrum needs, making data offloading to Wi-Fi and other indoor networks a significant trend. Read Sue Marek’s article on the five biggest wireless tech developments of the past decade for more industry highlights from the 2010s.

The 2010s were a time of transformative change in the wireless industry, capped off in 2019 by the introduction of another “G.” Many in the industry agree that 5G was the most significant development last year. The nation’s largest wireless carriers spent much of 2019 on initial deployments of the technology and that trend will continue in 2020 as 5G reaches more and more markets and the potential of 5G begins to emerge. The need for a wireless workforce to build these transformative networks will continue to grow in the coming year and beyond. CBRS with its novel spectrum-sharing model is poised for a big year with commercial deployments ramping up, and edge computing is gaining momentum as the internet of things relies more and more on wireless to thrive.

No doubt, 2020 will be an interesting and exciting year for the wireless infrastructure industry. (Check out this Barron’s article with 10 potential telecom surprises for 2020, including cable companies spending billions in the upcoming CBRS auction.) What do your wireless infrastructure industry colleagues think? Read below to see what some of the wireless infrastructure industry’s leaders think were the biggest trends in 2019 and their predictions for 2020 and beyond.

Morgan Kurk, Chief Technology Officer, CommScope

What was the most significant development or developments that happened during 2019 in the wireless infrastructure industry?

One of the most significant events in 2019 was the announcement of initial commercial deployment of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band in the U.S. We believe this will usher in a new era of private networks as enterprises realize that technology and spectrum availability has made it possible to untether both man and machine, creating a more flexible, optimized, and safer environment as pervasive connectivity enables analytics and machine learning. European countries such as Holland, Germany, Sweden and the UK have started or are eying local licensing approaches for private use with 4G and 5G technology.  The mid-band spectrum (3-4GHz range) that is being used is ideal for low latency, high reliability, high bandwidth applications.  Because it is in and around other wide area cellular bands it is both economical as it has scale and is easy to deploy as it has a good balance between equipment size an coverage.

What trend or product/service do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry most in 2020 and why?

5G has launched commercially in a number of places around the world, but it is only in its infancy. We see the 2020-25 half decade as major 5G coverage and capacity builds.  5G will be evolved from 4G though the non-standalone releases and over time will require upgrading the entire network from adding capability on the macro-sites, to densifying through increased metro cells and beefing up in-buildings systems. The entire core of the network is also being upgraded, virtualized and optimized.  Due to changes in network architecture various functions are being moved throughout the network.  Data which was stored at the core is moving toward the edge, while processing what was formerly at the edge is moving toward the core in the drive for network efficiency.  As the metro layer of the network densifies, site acquisition, backhaul, and power become critical for fast deployment.  CommScope has long talked about PBS – power, backhaul and site acquisition as the critical three for building a network and has designed solutions specifically focused on making this easier in the 5G buildout.

Leticia Latino-van Splunteren, CEO, Neptuno USA

What was the most significant development or developments that happened during 2019 in the wireless infrastructure industry?

Small cells and the regulatory framework about their implementation was a significant trend in 2019 but still is a “developing story,” one that will affect our ability to deploy 5G at the pace that is expected from the U.S.

What trend or product/service do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry most in 2020 and why?

I believe that we are living in a unique moment where I sense that if we had to identify any trend, I would identify it as convergence. Technologies are converging and meshing in a way never experienced before so that the industry can really deliver “the broadband experience” everywhere and to everyone. In order to be able to narrow the digital divide, that convergence has also started to happen at the workforce level, so that we can deploy 5G, for instance, at the pace needed to keep our country in the leadership position.

Joshua Broder, CEO, Tilson

What was the most significant development or developments that happened during 2019 in the wireless infrastructure industry?

The commercial launch of 5G is the most significant development in wireless, ever. The ability to provide a fiber parity speed and latency, even over a very short distance is game changing for users and for competition in the marketplace. The challenge in front of us now is in deploying these networks ubiquitously to meet a rising expectation.  We have hired up and are well into training to meet the workforce challenge this will bring.

What trend or product/service do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry most in 2020 and why?

Ultra-dense, fiber-fed, street level wireless networks with densely packed small cells will drive a lot of the capital intensity in 2020 to deliver true 5GNR mm wave based mobility service. However, tower site upgrades, including those sparked by the eventual outcome of the T-Mobile/Sprint/Dish case, will proceed apace of small cell networks. We are scaling for both.

Don van Splunteren, Global Vice President of Sales, Phoenix Tower International

What was the most significant development or developments that happened during 2019 in the wireless infrastructure industry?

The carriers shifted a lot of their focus from macro deployments to small cell deployments and despite federal regulations designed to accelerate small cell deployments, carriers did not achieve their deployment goals as they encountered a lot of resistance and hurdles from many local governments and constituents.

What trend or product/service do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry most in 2020 and why?

On the surface, 2020 will see 5G deployments dominating the telecom news, however the major impact on infrastructure will be felt not at the wireless/air interface part of the network (Antennas, Radios and base station which are mostly software upgrades) but rather at those components that drive latency and capacity such as compute (edge data centers), aggregation, and transport (fiber networks).

Carmine Battafarano, President, HMI Services, Inc.

What was the most significant development or developments that happened during 2019 in the wireless infrastructure industry?

This year, the world moved closer to the broad deployment of 5G and the possibilities present in a fully connected world. By improving transmission coverage and density, small cells provide the wireless network foundation to make 5G a reality, particularly in hyper-dense broadband traffic areas.

What trend or product/service do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry most in 2020 and why?

I hope to see several critical small cell efficiencies take shape in the year ahead:  a uniform permitting process, improved public understanding, open and interoperable standards, and increased planning precision in both indoor and outdoor site selection. These elements will optimize coverage, allow for scalability, ensure efficient capital investment, and streamline the deployment of small cells to expedite the rollout of 5G.

Chris Boniakowski, Director of Wireless Solutions, ZenFi Networks

What was the most significant development or developments that happened during 2019 in the wireless infrastructure industry?

The merger between Sprint and T-Mobile will have significant and lasting impacts on the industry. The immediate effect of coupling Sprint’s 2.5 GHz spectrum with T-Mobile’s 600 MHz plan will enable a viable and versatile 5G rollout. While other providers are focusing on mmWave frequencies, the new T-Mo will fill in the gaps in the lower bands and we will get a full assessment of 5G’s capabilities much faster than would otherwise be possible. Beyond the immediate implications for the largest operators, the merger has already opened space for Dish to begin to build a standalone 5G network.

What trend or product/service do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry most in 2020 and why?

5G is going to continue to be the major driver in the industry. 5G capacity and coverage requirements necessitate massive network deployments, and I expect a large push for service indoors in addition to the outdoor deployments already underway. Utilizing network innovations like CRAN architecture and virtualization, there is a great opportunity for 3POs to fill in the in-building demand, particularly in traditionally underserved small to mid-sized commercial spaces.

Michael Goodman, Director of Small Cell Deployment, United States, Phoenix Tower International

What was the most significant development or developments that happened during 2019 in the wireless infrastructure industry?

Though adopted late in 2018, we saw the firsthand effect of the FCC Small Cell Order (FCC-18-133) and the rapid adoption by carriers of ROW applications for small cells.  That learning process has shown the value of ROW, but also its limitations and drawbacks.

What trend or product/service do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry most in 2020 and why?

In 2020 I see two major issues driving deployments and infrastructure, which are 5G and CBRS.  The four (or three) MNOs will drive and compete for 5G status and whose is bigger/better/faster, while the MNOs will look to CBRS and other methods of capturing more wireless revenue from their existing customer base without roaming fees.

Kelly Brewer, Executive Vice President of Telecom, Tilson

What was the most significant development or developments that happened during 2019 in the wireless infrastructure industry?

The deployment and launch of 5G networks was the most significant development in 2019.  Given the requirement for dense fiber networks to feed significantly more node locations in very urban environments, these networks required innovation, collaboration and cooperation between carriers, OEMs, municipalities, design/builders, and policy makers.

What trend or product/service do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry most in 2020 and why?

Continued convergence of wireless and wireline networks to serve multiple end user applications will require continued training and development of a more hybrid workforce to support the technology and roll out of 5G networks. To meet the demand and speed our customers need for their network deployments in 2020 will require the development of new talent outside the industry and a curriculum that educates the workforce about the interplay between wireless and wireline, including the equipment, permitting and construction dynamics in order to increase deployment speed and manage the costs.

Fred Arnold, Chief Communications Officer, Learning Alliance Corp.

What was the most significant development or developments that happened during 2019 in the wireless infrastructure industry?

Specifically for Learning Alliance Corporation, we became the first Authorized Training Partner.  Our Tower Technician fundamentals course also became an approved pre-apprenticeship program with TIRAP. Both of these initiatives are spearheaded by WIA, and they are integral components to combatting the workforce shortage. The next-generation workforce loves to learn. They are ready to jump in and do the job at hand, but the industry lacks a structure that entices them. Programs like ATP and TIRAP provide that structure the next gen wants while also giving them the training necessary to succeed.

What trend or product/service do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry most in 2020 and why?

5G will by far have the largest impact because it brings every other piece of technology together. Ultra-low latency will create dynamic systems that can interact with each other at a speed we cannot even determine yet. It will create 3 million jobs over 10 years. It will make Edge computing that much stronger by supplying fast connection to towers and base stations that can process through gigabytes of data. 3G and 4G were about upgrading the current infrastructure to be better. 5G is about what technology it can enable. And that is exciting.

Mark Reynolds, Associate Director IT, University of New Mexico

What was the most significant development or developments that happened during 2019 in the wireless infrastructure industry?

The most significant trends during 2019 were related to 5G, the future of CBRS, WiFi6, small cells, DAS Life Safety (BDA or fiber-based) and legislation related to wireless coverage.

What trend or product/service do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry most in 2020 and why?

 All of the trends that were important in 2019 will continue in 2020 as applications will be driven by speed and connectivity. CBRS will be in “where does this fit” mode – IoT, buildings, cities or systems.

Bernard Borghei, Co-Founder and Executive Vice President, Vertical Bridge

Excerpted from Focusing in on wireless in 2020 with 20/20 vision (Reader Forum), RCR Wireless News, 12/20/2019

The FCC’s planned C-band and CBRS auctions in 2020 will generate a lot of activity and interest in the sector and will lay down the path for how the 5G networks will get rolled out by each carrier. The CBRS auction, will also tell us a lot about who plans to trial emerging technologies sooner rather than later, especially private networks, which haven’t seen much activity to date since there is very little unlicensed spectrum available for use. We can expect to see carriers, cable operators, WISPs and others vying for this extremely valuable spectrum.