When I began my career in the Telecom Industry with ClearNet in the late 1990s cell phones were in their infancy. Just being able to make a phone call from almost anywhere was amazing.
At that time ClearNet marketed itself under the tag line “The Future is Friendly”, offering both analog and digital coverage and billing by the second rather than the minute. Over time devices have changed from being able to make a simple phone call to being able to text and now email, Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, and Instagram. Changes in technology have created a challenge for cellular providers to deliver necessary bandwidth for these new devices; smartphones that we use today take up the bandwidth of 35 dual-mode phones of yesterday!
Increase in consumer demand for data and connectivity has forced providers to change their RF coverage and increase the number of towers and cell sites. This has resulted in push-back from communities opposing new installations regardless of consumer demand to increase bandwidth needs. Demand for data bandwidth is now progressing at an even higher level with 5G, triggering cellular providers to find new ways to provide the bandwidth to consumers. So what does this mean?
It appears that, over the next decade or so, many larger (“macro”) cell sites, particularly in (sub)urban areas, will begin to be replaced as Telus, Rogers, Bell deploy DAS (Distributed Antenna System) networks and Wi-Fi to provide consumers with the Data bandwidth they require. Telus is already deploying a Wi-Fi network to compete with the Shaw Go Wi-Fi Network in Western Canada and to offload data traffic in high density areas, e.g. Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary.
Shaw has over 45,000 Access Points across Western Canada in areas where consumers congregate and use Data such as shopping centres, sport facilities, libraries, doctor’s offices and outdoor venues. This is “value added service” to Shaw’s residential Internet customers and only requires the user to log on once where the device auto-authenticates on the network as soon as they are in a Shaw Go Wi-Fi zone, anywhere in Western Canada. Because of this coverage Shaw has some users that don’t need a data plan for their smartphones. I’m one of them. My household has 3 Smartphones, 3 Laptops and we can use these devices anywhere Shaw Go is available!
For the 2012 London Olympics BT (British Telecom) provided over 500,000 Wi-Fi hotspots by broadcasting an SSID over BT Customers in home Wi-Fi capable router!
Both Wi-Fi and DAS are the next generation of connectivity. Telus is deploying DAS in two new office towers in Calgary to provide coverage in the building, creating a scenario where multiple providers using different spectrum can use the same DAS antennae, eliminating the need for multiple antennae to provide coverage for the same area or venue. Additionally, the building owner or developer can install the DAS network and negotiate with providers for access to infrastructure they own. Providers can and will negotiate agreements with municipalities to install “small cell sites” on streetlights and power providers (Enmax, Fortis, and Epcor). By installing antennae on transmission lines, these agreements eliminate the need for community consultation allowing the providers to deploy and increase coverage quickly at a reduced capital expenditure. And therefore, no cost to build an additional monopole, rooftop or tower.
Major shopping centre owners are exploring the installation of their own Wi-Fi networks to capture data analytics, such as determining which door the guest comes in, their traffic route, and peak hours of traffic. The guest does not have to connect to the network and only needs to have Wi-Fi enable on their device.
As the big three Cellular Providers (Telus, Rogers and Bell) and Shaw as a major Wi-Fi Network owner continue to build out their fibre footprint to accommodate consumer demand for data, cellular towers, monopoles, and rooftop antennae will inevitably disappear.