2021: The wireless infrastructure industry looks ahead

2020 was a year of events that nobody could predict, including a global pandemic that altered the way people work, how students learn and the way everybody lives. These dramatic shifts impacted the wireless infrastructure industry as well, with capacity and coverage needs disseminating out from urban centers and applications like telemedicine taking on unprecedented importance.

Although nobody predicted a global pandemic at the start of last year, the wireless industry was already acutely aware of the importance of broadband wireless networks and the need for a workforce to build out crucial networks at the beginning of 2020. Now at the beginning of 2021, the importance of broadband and a trained workforce are more important than ever. Thought leaders from WIA and HetNet Forum members reflected on how the events of 2020 shaped the wireless industry and what we can expect in the year to come. Read their thoughts below.

 

Jennifer Alvarez Aurora InsightJennifer Alvarez

Chief Executive Officer, Aurora Insight

What was the most significant development that happened during 2020 in the wireless infrastructure industry and why?

As predicted last year, 5G deployments had a significant impact on the wireless infrastructure industry. We saw T-Mobile move quickly to deploy low-band 5G primarily as macrocells while taking advantage of Sprint’s mid-band frequencies to bolster its network performance following the merger. AT&T expanded its 5G offering by adding 850 MHz service, and Verizon continued with its mmWave 5G deployments. Densification was a key theme, driven by the need for increased capacity and the use of higher frequencies.

What trend do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry the most in 2021 and why?

In a word, “spectrum” will have the biggest impact on the wireless infrastructure industry in 2021. The two mid-band spectrum auctions in 2020 have made valuable CBRS and C-band frequencies available for new network deployments. As frequency bands become available for use, new deployments will be needed and will especially drive small cell deployments and private networks. The push for freeing up spectrum continues with anticipated auction of 3.45-3.55 GHz in 2021. More spectrum means expanded networks, deployed equipment and new towers and small cells.

 

Ben CardwellBen Cardwell

Senior Vice President, Connectivity Solutions and Mobility Solutions businesses, Commscope

What trend do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry in 2021 and why?

Covid-19 changed business priorities, and with them the role of networks in buildings and campuses. In 2021, we see companies embracing remote networking as some offered employees the opportunity to work remote permanently while other companies adjusted their offices to accommodate social distancing, meaning less employees back in the office. The network that connects those remote workers with their companies has become more important than ever. With a focus on employee and customer health and safety, building owners will continue to roll out secure VPN connections and manage their networks differently. (Excerpted from CommScope blog: What will the future hold for building and campus networks?)

 

Kevin Gallagher ExteNet SystemsKevin Gallagher

Senior Vice President, Product & Marketing, ExteNet Systems

What was the most significant development that happened during 2020 in the wireless infrastructure industry and why?

Unfortunately the pandemic has to be the most significant development that impacted the industry in 2020. The resulting trend of a virtual work/learn environment prompted an exodus from urban centers and an increase in network traffic in the Tier 2/3 and suburban areas. Enterprises shifted applications from 50 percent on-prem at the beginning of the year to almost 90 percent cloud based by the end of 2020.  Mobile network (4G and 5G) densification requirements have followed suit to align with the shift in network traffic.  The MNO’s focus since April has largely been in the suburban and Tier2/3 markets where people are now residing and working virtually.  Data center interconnectivity with diverse fiber routes became a huge focus.  But most important for the industry has been the increased pace toward network convergence which drove better than ever results and allowed us all to play a role in connecting enterprises, schools and families during a difficult time for many.

What trend do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry the most in 2021 and why?

Recent spectrum auctions have unleashed more spectrum availability than ever. Investment has now been made in the mid and high spectrum bands with the ongoing C-Band auction already raising a phenomenal $90B on the heels of a significant investment in the CBRS auction. Bidders include the Big 4 MNOs alongside cable operators, colleges and universities, enterprises and other non-traditional network operators.  All of the new spectrum will mean more network upgrades, redesigned network architectures, mobile edge computing that delivers next-generation applications, new mobile network operators will start to build out their networks, and there will be an emergence of the enterprise controlling their wireless destiny with private wireless networks. These trends certainly lead many of us to believe 2021 will be a great year for the industry. It will take industry leaders, like ExteNet, to offer a complete converged network portfolio to meet the wireless infrastructure demands in 2021. I know I speak for our team in saying we look forward to a 2021 where we continue to innovate, disrupt the traditional ways and support our customers in meeting their goals in 2021.

 

Ben Glass AltaerosBen Glass

Chief Executive Officer, Altaeros

What was the most significant development that happened during 2020 in the wireless infrastructure industry and why?

COVID-19 brought the far-reaching impact of the digital divide into focus, prompting legislators and carriers to finally take real action toward solving the problem. I sincerely hope that trend continues into 2021 and beyond. At Altaeros, we developed and released our first rapidly deployable aerial cell tower to facilitate quick wireless expansion to rural areas, and we look forward to our deployments in 2021.

What trend do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry the most in 2021 and why?

We expect the Altaeros SuperTower will revolutionize the way infrastructure is provided in rural markets to bridge the digital divide.

 

Leticia Latino-van Splunteren Neptuno USALeticia Latino-van Splunteren

Chief Executive Officer, Neptuno USA

What was the most significant development that happened during 2020 in the wireless infrastructure industry and why?

Undoubtedly, 2020 has been a year where all previous projections and industry plans suffered major adjustments. Ironically enough, I feel that the industry needed an adjustment of sorts. Technology was evolving way faster than users’ needs and the regulatory framework that supports the wireless industry. The pace was so fast that we were even experiencing a workforce shortage to deploy at the required pace. If 2020 did something, it was to help unify the pace. In my opinion, the most significant development of 2020 relates to technology adoption. The technology can be there, but if users don’t embrace it, the digital divide would just get bigger not smaller. Remote work, virtual learning and telemedicine were all options before the pandemic, but there was no compelling event to embrace them. 2020 gave us that. We achieved a major user mind-shift, one that could have lasted years. This mind-shift will have a huge impact when users truly start to see the broad array of new products and services that 5G will enable. Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things have a better chance now than they had at this time last year. On the regulatory front, closing 2020 with mid-range spectrum auctions, is very significant, exciting and will help shape the industry’s landscape for 2021.

What trend do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry the most in 2021 and why?

The most exciting trends for me for 2021 as they have a big potential to re-shape our industry ecosystem are:

  • OpenRAN generating an industry shift by promoting open interfaces within the mobile network, which will result in a broader variety of industry vendors and players.
  • The evolving multitenant edge data center industry fulfilling the new demand, and customizing the services required by companies in the Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality and IoT space.
  • Ongoing spectrum auctions as they will define what technologies will be used for the densification needed to achieve 5G’s true potential.

Patrick O’Hare ZenFiPatrick O’Hare

Senior Vice President, Operations and Engineering, ZenFi Networks

What was the most significant development that happened during 2020 in the wireless infrastructure industry and why?

The realization that wireless is wired somewhere and that without wires there is no wireless is a concept that is still evolving. We are seeing the need to build a new type of fiber infrastructure to support the data demands that are upon us. Traditional networks were either highly dense or highly accessible. Those legacy networks will not solve for the needs of a true 5G infrastructure. Fiber needs to be both highly accessible AND have large counts due to the density required to deploy small cells. This is a trend that will continue as 5G deployments proliferate. In addition, aggregating traffic closer to the end user will become more prevalent. ZenFi Networks currently owns and operates three network edge colocation facilities throughout our footprint that facilitate mobile operators, but these types of facilities can also augment traditional data centers and be leveraged by other types of market segments throughout our industry (WISPs, wholesale, content providers). This evolution of traffic aggregation closer to the edge and the use cases that can support it was never more evident than in 2020.

What trend do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry the most in 2021 and why?

Definitely the need for talent. Hopefully, we will begin to emerge from the pandemic, with the vaccine slowing its spread and impact. Then we can get back to some of the in-person collaboration that happens in a normal operating environment. The need for connectivity has exacerbated the need for talent. Never has it become more evident that we need to find and develop people who can step in and solve for the wireless challenges of today and the future technologies that are continuing to evolve.

 

Kurt SchaubachKurt Schaubach

Chief Technology Officer, Federated Wireless

What was the most significant development that happened during 2020 in the wireless infrastructure industry and why?

There is no doubt that the start of full commercial services using shared CBRS spectrum was one of the most significant wireless events of the year. The FCC gave the green light in January 2020, and by November over 100,000 CBRS access points had been deployed nationwide – one of the fastest technology uptakes in the history of the wireless industry. The speed of deployment reflects several things. First, the ecosystem was fully in place, including end user devices, access points, and modules for a variety of Industrial IoT applications, reflecting a strong pent-up demand as the final certification milestone was reached. Secondly, COVID-19 created a new demand for high-speed broadband access for schools and communities, and the industry immediately realized that fixed wireless over CBRS provided a cost-effective and easy-to-deploy solution. Finally, companies like Amazon and Microsoft quickly discovered that they could take advantage of shared spectrum connectivity delivered from the cloud to offer full service private wireless solutions across their Enterprise vertical markets.  There was an undeniable shift in the way wireless services are offered, and this shift was enabled by broad access to CBRS shared spectrum.

What trend do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry the most in 2021 and why?

2021 will undoubtedly be the year of true 5G deployments, with some nuance around the shift from 4G to 5G for private wireless deployments. On the whole, I think 5G will achieve 80-90 percent population coverage, and that 20-30 percent of the coverage will be CBRS-enabled. For private wireless, I think we’ll see continued investment in deployment of 4G in 2021, with real growth in 5G deployments in 2022 and 2023. Continued growth of the CBRS 5G ecosystem, particularly the breadth of 5G CBRS-enabled devices and IoT modules, is particularly important to drive private 5G market growth. The good news is that an investment in 4G private wireless in 2021 will not be a sunk investment, as most suppliers are developing devices and modules that are upgradable to 5G. So I think ’21 will continue to be a year of 5G private wireless development and ’22 will be when things really start to happen. During 2021, CBRS private networks will find a firm foothold in manufacturing and logistics, driven in part by government spending that we’re already seeing in projects like the DoD 5G to Next G Initiative.

 

Seri Yoon ADRFSeri Yoon

Marketing Director, ADRF

What trend do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry the most in 2021 and why?

5G in-building wireless deployments will surge in the commercial sector for a number of reasons next year. Many businesses will return to the office either full or part-time as COVID-19 restrictions lift, reinvigorating indoor connectivity needs. Wireless service providers are expected to build more networks in major metropolitan areas. 5G low, mid and high-band networks will become more mature, and so will the wireless technologies enabling connectivity indoors such as DAS, repeaters and small cells. Indoor 5G networks will be more strategically aligned with business goals than past generations as the technology enables a host of new capabilities to improve efficiencies and workflows.

In the public safety sector, there will be significant growth in Authority Having Jurisdictions (AHJs) that require UL 2524 certified in-building wireless connectivity products, which enforce better two-way emergency radio communication enhancement systems (ERCES) for Fire and Life safety first responders. The second (and latest) edition of UL 2524 applies to repeaters, transmitters, receivers, signal booster components, remote annunciators and operational consoles, power supply, and battery charging system components. Aside from it being the strongest wireless connectivity standard to ensure robust first responder communication, the UL 2524 standard is currently mandated in the upcoming 2021 version of the International Fire Code (IFC) and NFPA 1.

 

Do you have a prediction for the wireless infrastruture industry for 2021? Send your thoughts to Kristen.Beckman@WIA.org.