Mobile technology is changing the experience of our everyday lives. With texting, music and internet access all at our fingertips, devices such as smartphones and tablets have become either a link to the world or an escape, depending on how we use them. Dominic Villecco, president and founder of V-COMM Telecommunications Engineering in Cranbury, N.J. explains that in the coming years, as wireless providers try to keep up with plethora of demand we’ll see even more technological advancements.
In an interview with Villecco, he reveals some of the emerging trends occurring in the complex mobile communications industry today. His 18-year-old engineering firm works with site acquisition firms, such as CW Solutions to help wireless carriers upgrade their infrastructure throughout the country.
Q: What are the latest advances in cellular wireless networks?
A: The first mobile system to handle broadband data was 3G. The next generation was 4G or LTE (Long Term Evolution), which was actually a takeoff on the European standards body 3GPP (Third Generation Partnership Project). By next year, the newest version is expected to come into play, LTE-Advanced which is even better, offering faster download speeds and more features. Since it’s a pure data technology there is no hold back from voice and the data moves as fast as it can across radio waves. While it significantly increases the capacity of networks, we need to have more cell sites to meet the seemingly insatiable subscriber demand.
Q: So we need more cell sites to increase coverage and capacity?
A: Yes. There’s definitely a need for more sites. In the early days of wireless we had car phones, which used a high-power transmitter with an external antenna. People would use them between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., which matched the vehicular peaks in traffic. Now all of the devices are handheld and they transmit significantly less power. So instead of three-watt vehicular mounted phones we have 0.2-watt mobile phones, which is a big jump percentage wise. As a result, the coverage range of the device and the effective coverage of the tower shrinks. These lower power devices with internal antennas have less gain which drives the need for additional coverage. As the demand grows, the load on the system continues to grow and as load grows, the coverage shrinks.
Q: What is the range of a cell site?
A: It depends on the topography of an area and the frequencies that the carrier operates. Typically, it’s between half mile and 1 ½ miles. In less densely populated areas, the range is greater and in more populated it’s less.
Over the next decade, we will need at least 100,000 additional cell towers across the U.S. But they will differ from the towers built in the 80’s along the country’s highways and byways. A lot of new sites are now built on top of buildings, poles and church steeples, for example. Often times they are less than 100 feet tall as compared to the 200 foot plus towers built 30 years ago. To manage capacity, these new sites only need to cover small areas.
Q: Is there a limit to the number of carriers that can co-locate on a tower?
A: I’ve seen as many as seven but typically on average it’s three. Most towers are privately owned and carriers lease a location on a tower. They also lease corresponding ground space to locate their equipment. When a new multi-carrier tower goes up it is often designed for up to seven carriers, recognizing that other carriers will likely co-locate there in the future.
You can’t have more than the actual FCC-licensed carriers in a particular market. The Tier-1 carriers are Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. We’ve seen increased consolidation in the market with these four operators acquiring many of the tier-2 and tier-3 carriers in an attempt to broaden their subscriber base and radio spectrum holdings.
Q: Is it difficult for wireless carriers to get their projects approved?
A: We work closely with CW Solutions to assist wireless providers who are expanding their coverage in a market area. In fact, CW Solutions’ founders Stacie Curtis and Robert Weible were instrumental in developing legislation that has made it easier for providers to install new antennas on a cell site.
Several years ago, CW Solutions began working with Metro PCS (before the merger with T-Mobile) to create a microwave backhaul operation involving 130 sites throughout Essex, Hudson, Bergen, and Middlesex Counties. Although the subsequent merger in 2012 with T-Mobile put a halt to the project, they were very successful in helping them utilize the legislation in numerous individual municipalities. For example, Metro PCS was able to go straight to the permitting stage on seven sites in North Bergen and 17 in Jersey City.