Small Cells, Fiber, and Local Governments - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 239

After last week's podcast on Lincoln and its small cell policy, we wanted to offer a longer discussion about small cell wireless technology and the policy around it. Crown Castle is a firm focused on enabling wireless solutions and Acquisitions Manager in Corporate Development Strategy Duffy Newman joins us for episode 239 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

We explore what small cells are and how important they are to the future of improved wireless access. These devices are usually connected by fiber and allow an existing wireless service to improve bandwidth and reliability. Duffy offers the example of Philadelphia during the Pope's visit as a particularly good example of small cells in action. 

We also talk about local governments and the role they can play in enabling this technology and why it is important to have each node connected by fiber. 

This show is 27 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed

Transcript below. 

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.

Thanks to Admiral Bob for the music. The song is Turbo Tornado (c) copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. Ft: Blue Wave Theory.


Duffy Newman: The reason the carriers are using this type of technology is because they're trying to improve coverage but they're also looking at capacity.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 239 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Last week, we talked to Lincoln, Nebraska, a community using its fiber and conduit resources to improve wireless service in the city, using small cell technology. In this episode, Christopher gets the perspective of an infrastructure company that works on small cell deployment with wireless carriers. Duffy Newman is the acquisitions manager and corporate development in strategy for Crown Castle. Chris and Duffy touch on the function of Crown Castle and Duffy offers more detail on how small cells work and the difference between the new small cell technology and the traditional mobile wireless systems.

Christopher Mitchell: Hey folks, this is Chris Mitchell, the most of Community Broadband Bits. I just wanted to ask you if you could do us a real big favor to help us spread this show around. That's to jump on iTunes or Stitcher, wherever you found this show, and to give us a rating. Give us a little review, particularly if you like it. If you don't like it so much, then maybe don't do that, but if you're enjoying the show, please give us a rating and help us to build the audience a bit. Thanks.

Lisa Gonzalez: Now, here's Christopher talking with Duffy Newman, acquisitions manager and corporate development and strategy for Crown Castle.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Today, I'm speaking with Duffy Newman, the acquisitions manager and corporate development and strategy at Crown Castle. Welcome to the show, Duffy.

Duffy Newman: Thanks, Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm very glad to have you on. This show is following one week after we've just talked a little bit about what Lincoln is doing with small cells. I'm excited that our audience has some sense of how one city's dealing with it but now, I think we're going to talk a little bit more about what small cells are and offer people a better explanation. I think the best place to start would be with what Crown Castle does. Can you tell us a little bit about this company?

Duffy Newman: Yeah, you bet. For those of you who wonder, we're a publicly traded company. We provide wireless carriers with the infrastructure they need to keep the carriers going and businesses connected. Because of that, we're the largest shared wireless infrastructure in the Top 100 Markets. We have about 2,800 employees nationally with local intimate knowledge of all of our assets. We're based in Houston, Texas but our operational headquarters are in Pittsburgh. From an infrastructure perspective, we've got about 40,000 towers and we also refer to them as macro sites. We currently have around 18,000 small cell nodes. We support over 26,000 miles of fiber with our recent acquisition of FPL. Essentially, what we're trying to do is design, develop it, and operate a fiber-fed DAS and small cell networks that our clients can improve their overall signal strength and network capacity and coverage. I think it's important to note that we don't look at the network just as outdoor, we also do indoor installations as well for our small cell solutions. From our outdoor solutions, we really focus in on public Right-of-Ways. We look at doing deployments at universities and colleges. Some of the venues include stadiums and arenas, theme parks, hotels and resorts and things along those lines, but we also focus in on very densely populated areas. The reason is, from a marketing perspective, that's where the carrier is using their spend. We also look into HOAs that have high end exclusive communities.

Christopher Mitchell: HOAs are?

Duffy Newman: Housing authorities. Something smaller, like you might have in your local neighborhood, where you pay a HOA fee. $30 bucks a month, that might be your trash. They might do some snow removal, depending upon the part of the country that you're in. In essence, they're a local owned agency. I think it's also important, Chris, that we let you know a little bit about who we are. That is, it seems like what I described there, is a behemoth nationally. Really, what we're trying to do, is make as much impact to the local community as possible. We do that by trying to be environmental friendly and conscious. We are also aware that nobody wants to see a big red and white lattice structure in their backyard from a wireless perspective. We also do a very specific and detailed job to abide by all local jurisdictions, municipalities, rules, NEPA requirements, SHPO requirements, things that have historic elements is what a SHPO would be. I think from an environmental perspective, I think it's also important, and you and I have talked about this before, but if we're looking at construction in a community for deployment of wireless infrastructure services, we like to use the expression of "dig once." That's where we're minimally invasive to the community. We're minimally invasive to those that are seeing us out there. Dig once, from an infrastructure perspective, is something we're pretty big on.

Christopher Mitchell: You had mentioned different tower locations, but let's just make sure people recognize what do you do. You're not competing with Verizon and Sprint and AT&T and Team Mobile, those companies and others. They're actually your clients, right?

Duffy Newman: That's exactly right. In fact, through the years, we've actually purchased towers from AT&T and Verizon and the carriers in the past. What they're looking at trying to do is offload non-essential assets that they have because they realize that they're in the service of providing wireless customers capacity, which is a spectrum play. Non-core assets for them would be owning a network. They would like to defer their costs as much as possible to offset that. That's where Crown Castle gets in.

Christopher Mitchell: We're going to talk toward the end a little bit more about how this interfaces with local governments, local fiber networks and that sort of thing, but you mentioned small cell and you also mentioned DAS, which is a distributed antenna systems. Can you just give us a sense of what small cells are and maybe also how they might differ from DAS? Are these terms interchangeable?

Duffy Newman: Some people refer to them synonymously although from a technology perspective, they're not necessarily the same. What I mean by that is a small cell is generally a small ecosystem originating out of a hub, which is different then a distributing antenna system or a DAS. A hub system or small cell system, generally the system is going to be designed and built back to a macro site location or tower site location where, in this case, Crown Castle owns real estate, that we can build another box and put six or seven elements for equipment in there. Those components control the small cells, which is different then a distributed antennae system, which is more of -- I think of it more as a venue installation where you're generally constrained based on the size of a building. It's got a little different RF, radio frequency issues, that have to be designed out there. Generally speaking, the systems from a DAS network and a small cell network operate very similarly. What they need to operate is from the main electronics controlling everything, what we call backhaul, which is going back to a main switch network, but they also have generally fiber that is pulled out to the small cell nodes or to the DAS nodes. We would call that fronthaul. The reason the carriers are using this type of technology is because they're trying to improve coverage to such as shopping malls or stadiums, but they're also looking at capacity where a macro network as it has been designed, is not necessarily meeting all of the customers' needs and requirements. A small cell system is generally installed in the public Right-of-Way. We can do it on private property as well, but it comes with a little different complexities there. It's also important to know that we do everything we can to utilize existing ducts and fiber that a municipality may have or have access to. We also utilize existing infrastructure from utility poles or light poles. The idea is that we try to blend our equipment into the atmosphere of what's going on in a neighborhood. For example, if it's a gas lamp district, nobody wants to see an eyesore out there. We'll design a technology that can be deployed that might replace an antique gas lamp with something that looks like an antique gas lamp, but it has electronics for a small cell node. We try to use the Right-of-Ways as much as possible.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that one of the reasons that I felt like it's important enough to talk about small cells is that it seems like this isn't just a new thing. This is the direction that wireless is going in that this isn't something that's going to be happening for a few years. It's that we're going to see more-and-more small cells for possibly the rest of my life. Who knows? Certainly for at least the next 10, 15 years, right?

Duffy Newman: I would totally agree with that. If you think back of how wireless got started, let's rewind say 20 years ago or when I was getting in the industry. We're looking up and driving along the side of the highway and you might see a 400' tower out there. On top of that 400' tower, you might look up really closely and see a couple of things hanging off of it. Those are the antennas. Those antennas are at 400'. What they're doing is they're actually propagating RF, which is a spectrum, which is what actually enables your phone to operate. When you're driving along the highway, your phone is actually connected to only that 400' tower.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's just be very clear. Our phones are not talking to satellites. They're talking to towers that are nearby.

Duffy Newman: That's exactly right. People think that if you and I are in the same room together and I call you on my mobile phone to your mobile phone, that they have an instant connection. Then, they recognize there's a delay. What's happening is if I'm on Carrier A, then I'm actually going up through the wireless air, mike to a tower, that then is switched through fiber to the public telephone switching network. That public telephone switch network identifies where your phone number may be and it goes back and it finds your cell site that you're currently registered to, and it sends it back down to your network. I may be Carrier A, you may be Carrier B, the only wireless that we have is from our handset to the tower. As you can imagine, at 400', that's a lot of distance to cover. As time has gone on, what the carriers have done, is with the number of users getting onto the system, is they've actually lowered, we call them "RAD Centers." They're lowering effectively the height of the antennas, but when they do that, they actually need more towers and sites, which is why we've got 40,000 macro or cellular tower sites. We're trying to cover as best, as we possibly can. Now, for example, at a market where we might have been at 400', we could in theory be at 120' high, but that same distance that we were covering at 400', we might have five towers. Let's fast forward here to the rollout of the smart phones and the connected phones where everybody loves to be connected and watch YouTube videos of their cats or what's going on, on ESPN or the latest CNN blurb from the current President of the United States. When that happens, we are consuming an enormous amount of data on the systems. In order for the carriers to provide a unique user experience that has low latency, which means it doesn't buffer where your phone is going into queue, you're actually having a good, almost a real time experience when you're watching video. For them to do that, they would take a particular cell site, let's call it now at 120', and off of that cell site, they might deploy what's called "small cell nodes." In that ecosystem of small cell nodes, they could deploy anywhere between six to ten small cells. What they're trying to do is have a very close unique user experience that is different then going up to 120' high. These small cells are deployed at roughly 20 to 25' in the air. As you're driving along the highway, you're actually picking them up more frequently, especially in more densely populated areas.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. Rather than having hundreds of people presumably on 120' site, you'd probably have tens of people on a small cell site. You're sharing it with fewer, other competing devices.

Duffy Newman: Exactly. Exactly.

Christopher Mitchell: This comes up then, so, I mean, in order to deliver this high quality experience, to actually get some of these benefits at 4Gs capable of, that most of us may not be seeing on our daily basis, because 4G can do much greater capacity than most of us experience. These small cells are often connected by fiber, it seems like. Is that right?

Duffy Newman: That's absolutely correct. Initially, the technology we felt in the industry we could have done it through microwave. Microwave is a very small bandwidth spectrum that has limited capacity. Initially, when these networks were deployed we were like, "Hey! We can microwave these things. We don't actually have to tear up streets and drill and pull fiber in every location." What we found is that the users are consuming far too much data for them at this point in time to go over a different microwave spectrum. That brings us to the opportunity, which is, "How do we connect better?" That is, through fiber. From the fiber perspective, I think before I mentioned, we have somewhere around 26,000 miles of fiber. What we're doing with that fiber is we're not just connecting our cell sites back to the carriers main switches, we're actually trying to deploy those small cell nodes on our existing fiber networks. The importance of that is that if we have fiber in a marketplace and a carrier says, "We want to deploy." Chances are pretty good, we're going to win that opportunity to build that network out. If we do not have any fiber in that particular area and the carrier says, "Hey, we really want to build another market." Then, we're looking at trying to do what we'll call a public private partnership. We'll look at a community and say, "What assets do you have available? Is there municipal fiber available? Is there municipal conduit available that we can pull fiber into and through and connect these small cell nodes?" All-in-all, it's an ecosystem of fiber really being the glue that binds everything together.

Christopher Mitchell: We're actually talking about fiber that's pretty deep into neighborhoods. I mean, it may not be down your street, but it's going to be within walking distance, it seems like it will have to be.

Duffy Newman: It is. Generally speaking, a small cell, the way they're designed and how they cover the area, you can assume if it's radiating in a full circle, and let's say that there's not a hill, there's nothing really restricting its ability to get it out there, we're saying the small cell might be able to cover maybe the distance of two football fields, side-by-side. If you're looking at saying, "Hey, we're going to have these on every light pole and every street along small town USA, big town USA, it's going to depend upon what the carriers' requirements are. It's not something that people should really be afraid of, but it's really something that people should say, "Hey, we see this thing. We know our coverage is better. It makes sense."

Christopher Mitchell: Right. In some cases, I think a lot of people won't even notice because especially when you have what's called the cantenna, it may be a slightly different shape to a street pole. They may not even really realize it although if they look closely, there would be some differences they could tell.

Duffy Newman: I was challenged recently, Chris, in a very connected city to identify all the cell sites. I've been in the industry for 20 years. I looked around and I only found about half of them. The reason is, that the city was not just connected with small cells and macro cells, but I missed the obvious ones, which is what a Wi-Fi connected building looks like. When they pointed it out to me, I was like, "Oh, man." I started looking. It was amazing the number of wireless deployments that existed in this particular location. It was what we would call, maybe a Tier 2 city. It was fascinating.

Christopher Mitchell: That is interesting. I'll have to play that game myself. When I'm around someone, they'll be able to tell me if I'm getting it right or not.

Duffy Newman: That's right.

Christopher Mitchell: Otherwise, I just won't know if I found them all. Tell me, how can local governments play a role? In particular, you and I had talked about how there may be opportunities for local governments that have some infrastructure to work with you and lease it out.

Duffy Newman: You bet. I think suffice it to say, that the public Right-of-Ways are essential pathways for the deployment of assets. I was speaking with a lobbyist today and the current House of Representatives' agenda does not have infrastructure on their docket for early this year. It's going to be likely hitting the docket in the fall. The reason I was asking that question is, "I'm wondering where the White House is going to come out with this from an infrastructure perspective." Currently, we think of infrastructure as water, sewer, and power, but communications doesn't necessarily fall within the critical infrastructures guidelines unless it has to do with first responders. I'm of the mindset, and I think we, as an industry of the mindset to say, when we lose communications or if we lose communications, we're going to have some other challenges to handle. Having critical infrastructure communications in that as well would really help us out there.

Christopher Mitchell: As you're saying that, it's just worth noting that 48 US senators have just signed onto a letter urging the President to expand broadband access. It is something in which I think a lot of people agree, it is urgent infrastructure, although it doesn't always spring to mind in that same way. I think you're just going to get back to the local government, so I'll let you do that.

Duffy Newman: From a local perspective, what infrastructure we're trying to get access to, and I'll use that expression "dig once" to be minimally disruptive in a community, is we'd like to have access to the ducts, to the conduits, to the fiber. If there are utility poles and associated equipment being deployed in the Rights-of-Way, we'd like to facilitate and help with the build-out of those broadband networks. Municipalities experience the Right-of-Ways by use of the electric companies, the cable providers, and we should use that as a guideline for all small cell infrastructure as well going forward. Some of the things that might hurt us or slow us down from the communications' perspective, would be perhaps excessive requirements such as like zoning for each new utility pole, provided that a pole that's in the ground today is substantially similar to what the existing infrastructure is. Or, allowing us to -- They could now allow us to co-locate on existing structures where the fees are not out of line with what might someone else have access in the Right-of-Way.

Christopher Mitchell: A lot of cities in the past, because of these 120' towers-type applications, they've gone on and they've wanted to do an in-depth review. What I notice is happening in Lincoln and in Boston and in other places, is they basically set up a system in which they're for the small cells -- They're like, "Okay, if you want to replace this kind of street light in most of these neighborhoods --" It might be just a few neighborhoods that have historic designations that don't count, but 90 percent of the city, that's going to be an expedited process. It provides a little bit more certainty. It's a streamlining that I think is pretty reasonable.

Duffy Newman: You're spot on. We looked at each, we'll call it utility pole. We have to look at the structural integrity of each and every pole to be certain that effectively it's not going to get blown over. We're going to be able to load the equipment that we have on there without putting anybody in jeopardy in that area. If there is a like-for-like replacement, for example, if it's a wood pole, we'd want to replace it with a wood pole that may be more straight or a wood pole that has been tested and does not have bug decay or we may want to do a concrete pole or a steel pole or aluminum pole. Whatever like-for-like might be, that can meet the requirements for the deployment of the equipment, but also fit and blend in within a community as well. I think some of the model legislation really recognizes that expediting the process with reasonable and non-discriminatory rates and fees for each deployment, are really essential for the construction and maintenance of the networks. Our goal is to do it right, every single time out there.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I always like to highlight is where communities are doing it well because I think a lot of communities are struggling with what a good model is. If we can highlight those, hopefully, we'll have more of them. What is one that you'd point to that other communities should look at emulating?

Duffy Newman: One of the greatest examples of success that Crown Castle has had and the carriers have had, happened about a year ago when the Pope came to Philadelphia. That's a very historic area, a lot of Philadelphia is. The Pope was going to be basically going from downtown out to where Rocky climbed the steps.

Christopher Mitchell: I think he was doing a tour of the cheese steak locations. He's a very, very new Pope.

Duffy Newman: Exactly. The carriers got together. There was an estimate of 900,000 people that were going to come out and greet the Pope. There was an enormous stress and strain that was going to be put on the network. It's one thing from the perspective of you and I sitting there watching the Pope come by in the Popemobile and being able to communicate. There is a more pressing issue. That is the Secret Service had to have connectivity. Secret Service, yes, they utilize their own network, but they also use a lot of commercial services on many of the carriers. What the carriers were looking at and saying from a public safety first responder perspective, "We have to make this go." What happened there, Chris, is that we coordinated with the planner of event and obtained approvals from six separate departments in Philadelphia. In addition, we obtained permits from the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Offices. We had six or seven different entities that we had to coordinate out there because each piece of the infrastructure had to be thoroughly utilized and had to have a shared solution across multiple carriers to preserve the beauty of what was going on there. You lay all this together and you say, "Well, that's pretty cool but what does fiber have to do with it?" Fiber had everything to do with it. We had to design the fiber network. We had to get approval. We had to install all the equipment. We had to test it. We had to calibrate it. Everything had to be done within nine months. All of this, in an effort to support you and I sitting there watching the Pope come by in the Popemobile, and now we're on Facebook live. It was a huge suck on the whole system out there. What we did was, we submitted the solution to handle everything out there. Not just for what was going on in the parkway, so that we could have coverage there, but we also said this infrastructure was going to stay out there. We installed 37 new small cell nodes on all these poles in the Right-of-Way. They were all designed to blend in with the existing street lights. As with the other historic areas that we've done like in Central Park and the French Quarter in New Orleans, the installation was virtually unobtrusive to the high standards of what was going on in Philadelphia. At the end of the day when the crowds came and the Pope came by, the carriers were just overwhelmed with the amount of data. One carrier reported that they used over 12.6 terabytes of data on their network. In comparison, that 12.6 terabytes of data is almost seven-and-a-half times the amount of data in 2015 as for the Super Bowl.

Christopher Mitchell: Wow!

Duffy Newman: It all happened because the three carriers that tied into our neutral host infrastructure network connected directly.

Christopher Mitchell: That's just a reminder to people that you really need fiber to move that kind of data.

Duffy Newman: I tell you, without it, the system is just going to be -- You won't be able to connect. Nothing will go through.

Christopher Mitchell: Duffy, I really appreciate all your time in talking about these issues.

Duffy Newman: Absolutely, Chris. It's been my pleasure. Thank you so much for your efforts in what you're doing there.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher talking with Duffy Newman, acquisitions manager and corporate development and strategy for Crown Castle. We have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits Podcasts available at Email us at with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. You can also follow stories on Twitter where the handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all of the podcasts in the ILSR family on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research, subscribe to our monthly newsletter at Thanks to Admiral Bob for the song, Turbo Tornado, licensed through Creative Commons. Thanks for listening to Episode 239 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.