Mobile World Congress is always awash with the latest market forecasts and statistics, and while some of these owe more to hope than experience, others are updated year-by-year and provide a very credible picture of how a particular technology is developing. Market Experts’ regular figures for the Small Cell Forum are an example, probing deep into the sector’s supply chain to understand the patterns shaping the market.
The latest results show significant progress, especially driven by growth in the enterprise segment. According to the Forum’s figures, several important landmarks were crossed in 2015. The sector topped $1 billion in revenues for the first time, and non-residential small cells made by far their biggest impact to date, accounting for two-thirds of that revenue figure, and for 40% of unit shipments in the fourth quarter.
That shift is very important to this industry. While residential deployments continue to rise, the more rapid growth curves in business and public urban networks show that the technology is ready to support a far more diverse range of use cases. This will drive new levels of profit and growth into the market, as well as demanding new levels of technical and process innovation to meet the needs of these different sectors.
The ability to serve a range of markets with different priorities is vital to any mass technology, and small cells have reached that point, which sets the stage for greatly increased scale from 2016 onwards.
So far, 13.3 million small cells have been deployed in total, according to the Forum, and about 3 million of them were shipped in 2015 alone. In 2016, the forecasts point to about 140 per cent growth in revenues overall, while shipments will rise by 270 per cent in the enterprise segment, from about 400,000 last year, and almost 100% in the urban area.
Together, urban and enterprise cells will have enjoyed tenfold growth in the 2015-2016 period, and in 2017, they are set to overtake residential shipments, which are set to remain at a steady deployment rate of 2.5 million to 3 million for the rest of the decade. By contrast, urban and enterprise will hit 6 million in 2020, with enterprise alone delivering $4 billion in revenues by then.
These kind of figures show small cells moving out of the ‘interesting niche’ of their early years to the heart of operators’ and enterprises’ network planning. By the end of the decade, the Forum believes small cells will account for about 85% of RAN infrastructure units as carriers densify their public networks and deliver more and more in-building cells to meet the rising expectations of businesses and their employees and customers.