What’s ahead for Wireless in 2024? Industry leaders weigh in

The past year has been a busy one for the wireless infrastructure industry. The emergence of fixed wireless access dominated headlines as BEAD funding plans moved forward. Shifts in capital expenditures and funding models also impacted the industry as 5G rollouts began to mature. However, connectivity continues to demonstrate its immense value and necessity, and wireless has proven it is a key tool in ensuring that connectivity benefits everyone.

Looking ahead to 2024, wireless infrastructure industry thought leaders are keeping their eye on developments including Open RAN, network densification and in-building connectivity, spectrum and artificial intelligence. Read on to see what they are predicting for the next 12 months.

Patrick Halley

President and CEO, Wireless Infrastructure Association

The market-impacting success of 5G-powered fixed wireless access (FWA), led by Verizon and T-Mobile, was arguably the biggest development in 2023. Far from a short-term blip, in 2023 FWA accounted for a whopping 101% of net broadband adds in the US, after capturing 90% of net broadband adds in 2022. This continued success has proven naysayers wrong about the impact and capabilities of wireless and shows what’s possible when we free up more spectrum for commercial use! And I’m encouraged to see numerous state broadband offices across the country, consistent with WIA’s steady advocacy, incorporating FWA into their plans for the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program. 

DISH achieving 70 percent coverage of the U.S. population also deserves a BFD mention for 2023. This tremendous accomplishment by the DISH team, supported by a whole lot of WIA member companies, shows that competition and innovation in wireless communications is alive and well.  

In 2024, AT&T’s Open RAN deployment in collaboration with Ericsson will no doubt be one of the most important trends for our industry. This decision will have a major impact on the overall ecosystem, and it will be interesting to see how the rest of the carriers and equipment ecosystem respond.   

Also, AI’s impact on wireless network deployment and management will be something to watch in the coming year. I look forward to seeing what new network planning and spectrum management tools this technology will unlock — and how it will enable carriers to more efficiently utilize scarce spectrum resources. AI-powered efficiencies will be a game changer, but I suspect that carrier capacity needs will inevitably outstrip their ability to squeeze enough efficiency out of their existing spectrum. For that reason, WIA will continue hammering home the importance of adding commercial spectrum to the pipeline to keep up with consumer and enterprise demand (along with smart permitting policies!). 

Eric Toenjes

National Market Manager – Wireless Solutions, Graybar

What was the most significant development that happened during 2023 in the wireless infrastructure industry and why?

Definitely the ongoing shift from carrier to enterprise-funded wireless projects, along with the broader adoption of 5G as the go-to standard. We’ve watched carriers step back from funding all but a few specific types of wireless projects. Meanwhile, we’ve seen that enterprise clients are starting to appreciate the benefits of controlling their own networks. That control is becoming increasingly important since almost every business task today involves being connected. Whether it’s for security, reliability, or just plain practicality, it makes a lot of sense for businesses to invest in building and operating their own networks. It’s also important in terms of public safety because we’re seeing code enforcement to ensure first responder radios work effectively inside buildings. For both new construction and building updates we’ve seen a steady increase in enforcement over the years, but there has been a significant acceleration recently across most major metropolitan areas.

Plus, now that more companies are back in their offices, there’s a greater willingness to invest in wireless infrastructure that we didn’t see during COVID. People are using these spaces again, so it makes sense to invest in good networks to support them, creating a positive customer experience.  Additionally, the ever-growing amount of data we all use means that companies are incented to diversify their networks. This includes investing in both Wi-Fi and commercial cellular networks to manage data needs more effectively and improve connectivity. 5G, in particular, supports these trends by providing both increased data flow and an enhanced experience, and that helps validate the investment in a diversified network infrastructure.

What trend do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry the most in 2024 and why?

Still, that continued push for in-building wireless infrastructure. With business activities back on-site and budgets finally aligning with company needs, we think it’s going to be “all systems go.” We’re talking about complex, long-term projects here, controlled by the enterprise. We all know that these types of projects can take months, if not years, to build, but behind the scenes, the planning and internal approval stages can also stretch over months or years. It’s a thorough process, from collecting data on usage needs and deciding what kind of system is best, to getting the green light on the budget. But now, those detailed plans are finally getting off the ground, and we’re stepping into the phase of actual construction and deployment. It’s an exciting time because all that groundwork is turning into real, tangible progress in our spaces.

Also, keep your eye on private cellular networks. They’re gaining traction across different industries, particularly for those needing enhanced security or more control over their networks. We’ve been busy helping set up a lot of smaller, proof-of-concept systems. Looking ahead, I expect a shift from these initial trials to full-scale rollouts across multiple enterprise locations. It’s going from a ‘let’s try this out’ phase to ‘let’s make this happen everywhere.’

Laurent “LT” Therivel

President and CEO, UScellular

Excerpted from Three Wireless Industry Predictions for 2024

It’s been nearly four years since the start of the pandemic that forever changed the way we use technology. The need for reliable connectivity has never been more important, and it’s demonstrated by the fact that U.S. wireless carriers supported more than 73 trillion MB of traffic in 2022 – the most ever and a 38% increase from 2021.  

Wireless customers demand high broadband speeds – and rightfully so. Customers use their devices for work, school, telehealth and as hotspots, so speed demands are increasingly important. In 2024, wireless carriers will mainly meet that need for speed by deploying mid-band spectrum.

Mid-band is the spectrum band (the radio wave frequency that delivers signals to our phones) that is considered the “sweet spot” of 5G because it provides fast speeds with broad coverage. Low-band spectrum provides broad coverage, while high-band spectrum provides fast speeds with a limited reach. Wireless carriers – including UScellular – have begun expanding their mid-band 5G networks sooner than expected thanks to early access to new spectrum, and in 2024, I predict that the mid-band expansion will really ramp up. That will provide a significantly better mobile experience, and even better home internet speeds via fixed wireless – using wireless technology to provide broadband to homes and businesses.

John Minnis

CEO, Kompass Funding

What was the most significant development that happened during 2023 in the wireless infrastructure industry and why?

The wireless infrastructure industry experienced a significant slowdown from 2022 to 2023, attributed to the cooldown we saw within the 5G rollout and tier 1 providers spending less on their 5G networks.  As a result, general contractors have shifted their focus from 5G development to small cell development and fiber. 

We anticipate the same theme of a “5G cooldown” to continue in 2024. Our analysts predict this slowdown will persist with lower tower service margins and 5G programs coming to an end. Tier 1 and tier 2 providers are likely going to look for other areas to generate revenue such as price increases and a decrease in customer incentives. We also expect companies to reprioritize initiatives including sustainability and green practices and cybersecurity. At the same time, general contractors will continue to bring on projects of smaller cell sites and fiber networks. 

What trend do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry the most in 2024 and why?

Jorge Pedraza

Vice Chairman, Head of Business Development, Symphony Wireless

What was the most significant development that happened during 2023 in the wireless infrastructure industry and why?

Wireless industry traffic continues to grow at a rate of over 30% year over year. The major carriers made significant investments in response to this network need both in scale and efficiency, with continuing spectrum deployment, 5G network upgrades and investments in Open RAN (O-RAN) supporting interoperation between vendors’ equipment. As a company focused on macro wireless real estate, we see the ripples of this investment are felt across both the telecom and real estate industries, affecting wireless macro rooftop assets and tower ground lease assets.

This brings me to the other big story of ’23, the rising cost of capital that created new headwinds for some industry participants and that have resulted in well publicized cost rationalizations around the industry. Similarly, we were also reminded of the connectivity of telecom real estate assets back to the overall domestic U.S. real estate market, as a large proportion of landlords have been impacted by the complications in the wider property market, in particular commercial real estate.

As such, 2023 served as a good reminder on how to invest profitability in infrastructure with a long-term view. In that respect, 2023 also created significant opportunity for well capitalized, partnership orientated wireless infrastructure providers to deliver creative solutions for their customers — such as Symphony Wireless tries to create with carriers, tower companies and real estate owners every day.

What trend do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry the most in 2024 and why?

Demand for AI skyrocketed in 2023. With untapped potential ahead, how companies deal with AI growth across the digital infrastructure ecosystem, including wireless, will be a major factor in 2024.

With AI as an example of a new, network intensive application, perhaps the largest and most important theme going forward will be the continued high growth of wireless network demand and what decisions are made to deal with it.

The long-term need for more network capacity with low latency will be enduring. We expect to see further 5G densification in urban and rural markets in 2024, alongside ongoing network investment and innovation. Rising to meet these challenges will supersede cyclical cost of capital considerations as we seek to meet these demands and help support U.S. wireless innovation for the rest of this decade and beyond. From our perspective, this will include the need to secure high-value real estate locations, with flexible, long-term value for our carrier and tower customers.

Jamie Schwarz

AVP Telecom, Tilson

What was the most significant development that happened during 2023 in the wireless infrastructure industry and why?

In 2023, the wireless industry experienced the most significant downturn in construction and site deployment in the last 10 years. Due to the recent expansion of 5G and current network maturity, industry leaders limited CapEx spend in 2023, deferring construction and site deployment initiatives into late 2024 and early 2025.

What trend do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry the most in 2024 and why?  

As the wireless industry evolves, it will demand more automation and digitalization to support future growth. With the continued expansion of 5G and Wi-Fi 6/6E networks, industry leaders are increasing the use of wireless technologies to improve reliability, efficiency, and productivity. 

Julie Song

President, Advanced RF Technologies, Inc. (ADRF)

What trend do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry the most in 2024 and why?

The continued growth of converged in-building wireless networks (commercial and public safety DAS sharing the same infrastructure) will have a significant impact on our industry this year. The carrier-funded model of wireless is declining for enterprises at a time when connectivity is increasingly important to business. Companies desperately need a way to keep deployment costs down. Converged networks allow enterprises to simplify their infrastructure and gain significant cost savings since both commercial and public safety systems can share cabling and other costly components.

In 2024, we can also expect further 5G technology advancements and more widespread adoption. Wireless carriers are anticipated to roll out additional 5G services, and we may witness a growing availability of 5G-capable devices, such as smartphones, IoT devices, and other consumer and industrial equipment. In addition to consumer-focused applications, we can expect more 5G deployments using mid-band spectrum for industry-specific use cases, such as healthcare, manufacturing, and hospitality.

Apurba Tribedi

Senior Director, Tower Products, Bentley Systems, Inc.

What trend do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry the most in 2024 and why?

As we participated at various conferences and industry events globally in 2023, we noticed the emergence of innovative technologies, be it digital twin, power management, sensors, alternative power sources, etc. However, the industry was still warming up with these technologies, including their potential benefits. The primary concern was cost and the subsequent ROI. Thanks to the recent advancements in Artificial Intelligence, many of these emerging technologies have started leveraging AI to help drive down the cost significantly. So, the most significant trend will be to adopt AI-enabled technologies by service providers as well as owners to reduce operations costs and deliver projects faster. AT&T will continue to ramp up its C-Band buildouts throughout the year.

Joaquim Serrahima

Director of Global Key Accounts TELECOM, iLOQ

What trend do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry the most in 2024 and why?

The secure and effective management of access rights for multiple utility sites is vital to ensure modern society runs smoothly. And, as critical infrastructure managers are responsible for the sites themselves as well as the health and safety of those people accessing them, it is paramount to know exactly who is entering where and when.

When it comes to ensuring security, the latest trend is towards eliminating mechanical locking and moving towards adopting highly functional and immensely secure smart-locking solutions. Keyless mobile access sharing solutions are revolutionizing the locking industry by solving issues caused by lost or stolen keys, preventing unauthorized access, and eliminating the need to travel between administration offices and sites to collect and return keys.

In a mobile access sharing solution, access rights are sent in real time, over the air to a mobile phone running an app. They can be instantly changed or cancelled with the touch of a button making it even quicker and easier to control who has access. Real-time audit trail reports are an excellent tool to help prevent unauthorized access, or solve instances of misuse, by showing exactly who has accessed a site and when. And the management of multiple (and remote) sites are consolidated into one cloud-based software platform, saving businesses time and resources.

Sustainable operation is also high on the agenda for towercos. The most sustainable locking systems are those that are battery- and cable-free. This means zero energy consumption and zero emissions from daily use.

SFC Energy

What trend do you think will impact the wireless infrastructure industry the most in 2024 and why?

Emergencies, environmental disasters and uncertainties in the energy grid are just some of the many reasons that can lead to a power supply failure. Safety-relevant applications such as energy infrastructure, gas and water supply are currently in focus, and municipal utilities, utility companies and operators of critical infrastructure are required to ensure trouble-free operation. Fuel Cells are the ideal solution to reliably secure plant energy, emission- free over several days, thanks to their low maintenance requirements and the guarantee of an uninterrupted power supply.

SFC Energy’s EFOY Hydrogen fuel cell is already providing answers today to the questions of tomorrow’s climate-neutral energy landscape. As an emission-free, low-noise and cost-saving alternative, it is the green engine in the global race to zero emissions. Hydrogen fuel cells offer enormous opportunities to successfully master todays challenges in an increasingly complex energy generation landscape. It offers advantages such as lower total cost of ownership, remote monitoring and control and zero emissions.

With the EFOY Methanol fuel cells and the EFOY Hydrogen fuel cell, SFC Energy already covers the needs of low and medium power generation. The aim is to serve the market in future with more powerful modular hydrogen fuel cell solutions up to 200 kW output. Thanks to the low maintenance requirements and the assurance of an uninterrupted power supply, fuel cells are the ideal solution for operating systems reliably and emission-free for several days.

Major incidents, environmental disasters, uncertainties in the energy grid – there are many reasons that can lead to a power outage. The uninterrupted operation of critical infrastructures is of great importance in order to remain operational in the event of an emergency.

Safety-relevant applications such as BOS digital radio, which is already largely backed up by fuel cell-based emergency power systems, are also part of the critical infrastructure. In addition to telecommunications and public authority radio, the focus is currently on infrastructures in the energy, gas and water supply, healthcare and IT sectors. Municipal utilities, supply companies and operators of critical infrastructures are required to ensure trouble-free operation.

Thanks to the low maintenance requirements and the guarantee of an uninterrupted power supply, fuel cells are the ideal solution for reliably securing systems for several days without emissions.

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