Significant growth in private operators and neutral hosts over next five years, as new small cell use cases provide rich soil for innovative new players

This years’ Market Status Report has thrown up some growing trends in the area of diversification, particular in the number of new deployers coming into the cellular segment over the next five years.

The forecasts in the report suggest that by 2026, as many as 30% of the installed base of outdoor small cell networks, and 71% of indoor enterprise systems, are likely to be operated by new entrants to the cellular segment.

Not all will be new companies – there will be incomers from the cloud, WiFi, tower and enterprise/private network spaces, among others. But there will also be an increasingly rich soil for innovative new players, whether these are neutral hosts, private network operators, city or enterprise specialists.

Some may be new owners of mobile spectrum; a larger number will be harnessing new sources of shared or lightly licensed spectrum. Some will deploy 5G from scratch, especially towards the end of the forecast period; larger numbers will start with 4G densification.
In general, these deployments will be incremental, not substitutions for roll-outs that would otherwise have been made by established MNOs.

The report notes that over three-quarters of the small cells that will be deployed by non-traditional operators between 2020 and 2026 would not have been implemented at all had MNOs been the only organizations able to build small cell networks. And increasingly, those MNOs will leave behind former concerns about sharing active infrastructure, and will see these new small cell networks as an opportunity to extend their own reach and services cost-effectively.

In many cases the new operators will complement MNO business models rather than competing directly. For instance, an MNO may find it difficult to make a strong business case for an indoor or dense city deployment, but will happily ride on a third party network so that its subscribers have unbroken service when they venture inside or into a hotzone.

The biggest categories of alternative enterprise deployer are private operators and neutral hosts. The growth of private cellular networks is gathering pace now, starting in 4G, while a significant uptick is expected on the back of enterprise 5G requirements, as well as a leap in neutral host roll-outs around 2023-2024. The graphs shows the growth in deployment of enterprise small cells by non-traditional service providers, or by enterprises themselves.

Figure 10: Deployments and upgrades of enterprise small cells by operator type

Some enterprises will be served by a ‘heavy MVNO’ – a company which delivers most of its services via an MVNO agreement with a main operator, but builds out some small cells, sometimes with a private core and edge compute node, to extend the edges of that virtual coverage into a specific enterprise location.

By 2026, private operators will have drawn level with MNOs in terms of the installed base of cells they run, while they will still account for 25% of new deployments. From 2025, they will be overtaken by neutral hosts in the pace of roll-out, and in 2026, neutral hosts will account for 30% of new deployments in that year, and 20% of the installed base.

SCF has ramped up work items around the private network and neutral host sector to support this growing segment of the market. Our recent release document ‘Private Networks with Small Cells’ was a market position paper, and will be followed up with two further papers; the first will look in detail at the requirements for private networks at ports; and the second management solutions for private networks.
You can find out more about those and other work items here, or to download the Market Status Report 2020, click here.