For most operators, the 5G business case will depend heavily on new revenues, coming from enterprise services. Many industries can improve their efficiency and productivity by adopting new mobile-first processes, but these make significant demands on the network, requiring fast data rates combined with high quality of service and low latency. Above all, the networks must support these capabilities indoors, where at least three-quarters of enterprise data traffic is generated.
In fact, many enterprises cannot wait for 5G to be fully deployed, in order to adopt these new processes and applications. They need a solution which can deliver deep indoor coverage, with high quality of service, today, while being ready for 5G migration when the time is right
And yet, to date, most operators have found it hard to make a strong business case to deploy indoor networks which reach every corner of a premises, and are optimized for the demanding connectivity needs of enterprise services.
These needs will only get more complex as industries start to implement strategies for the Internet of Things (IoT), which may involve huge numbers of devices and very low latency; and for edge computing, to support real time response. In addition, security and privacy requirements will be paramount.
Current solutions do not tick all the enterprise boxes:
If all these enterprise requirements are to be met, while supporting a strong business case for the operator, a new solution is clearly needed urgently. This needs to address two major challenges in current mobile systems and economics – how to provide deep indoor coverage in a way that benefits both the deployer and the enterprise; and how to deliver wireless connectivity which is optimal for many different verticals with varying requirements.
There are several approaches to indoor mobile networks on the market today, but none ticks all these boxes. For large venues such as stadiums or enterprise campuses, DAS (Distributed Antenna System) is the norm, but it is costly to deploy and has limitations when it comes to 5G-class data applications. Small cells are an alternative, but some architectures have proved hard to scale cost-effectively, creating total cost of ownership (TCO) challenges.
An emerging approach, which aims to address the limitations of current solutions in 4G environments and lay the foundations for 5G, is known as Digital Indoor Systems (DIS). Huawei has been in the forefront of developing this approach, which has already been deployed in over 500 5G-ready indoor commercial venues. It is scalable, so it can be rolled out in small sites where DAS would be unaffordable, but can be expanded to large areas at similar investment to DAS, but with far superior user experience and digital support.
Huawei’s DIS architecture has three key elements which distinguish it from DAS and other solutions. These are a digital head-end, the use of standard IT cabling, and a simple, visual approach to operations and management (O&M). The digital head-end integrates antennas and remote radio units (RRUs) in a compact element which supports 4G spectrum and the 5G C-bands today, with millimeter wave support to come in future (without replacing the element). In the DIS architecture, the head-end is connected to a radio hub, which links in turn to a centralized baseband unit (BBU). This shared BBU supports maximum cost-efficiency and flexible allocation of resources to the elements where they are most needed.
It is important, to reduce cost and deployment time, that DIS can use standard Ethernet and fiber IT cabling, so that new elements can be added without the need for disruptive re-cabling and additional site visits. And an intuitive approach to O&M, with significant scope for automation, helps to improve the business case further by reducing operating costs.
These advances are moving the industry closer to a solution which supports high quality indoor coverage and the flexibility to address many vertical industries’ needs.
Cross-industry, 5G-ready platform will change the economics of indoor mobile
Many of the early proof points are seen in China, where many initial deployments of DIS have been seen. There, it supports large-scale indoor networks in environments such as large railway stations, shopping malls, office complexes and major festivals.
But operators, regulators and enterprises in other regions are calling for their countries to be able to take advantage of the DIS approach too. There is rising awareness that this approach will help to achieve wider 5G goals for commercial, social and economic improvement, all of which rely on indoor and enterprise platforms.
The way in which many stakeholders are converging around the DIS idea was highlighted at the recent 2019 APAC Spectrum Conference in Kuala Lumpur, where representatives from industry alliances, tower operators and operators were talking about the need for a new approach.
Yanbin Li, deputy secretary general of the Telecommunication Development Industry Alliance (TDIA) told the audience that the Chinese example could be emulated elsewhere with suitable support from the industry and governments, and with a push for common international frameworks. She said: “It is necessary to prioritize the harmonization of 5G DIS cross-vertical standards globally in order for verticals to function at the optimum and thereby ensure success in 5G.”
At the same event, Telekom Malaysia focused on how indoor coverage and quality influence an operator’s churn rate, and called for regulatory policies to make it easier to ensure these. Kangwei Khoo, AGM business development and strategy, said that operators need to shift from a coverage to a capacity perspective indoors, and so it will be “crucial to implement DIS, since the current indoor solution does not cater for future and new technologies. With 5G technology upcoming, the use of mmWave, Massive MIMO and the fact that there will be more cross-industry collaboration – e.g. with real estate, healthcare and media – will only exacerbate things further.”
These viewpoints reflect two common themes:
- indoor digitalization is urgent, and cannot wait for 5G, though a smooth migration to 5G and mmWave is important
- improved indoor coverage and capacity will impact on many vertical sectors with varying requirements.
That has several implications. Deployments must start with 4G, but be 5G-ready. They must be able to support the specific connectivity requirements of a particular industry or enterprise. But to the achieve economies of scale that will drive good deployment economics for operators, they must be based on unified, global frameworks which can be optimized flexibly.
To build on the initial deployments in China, the Middle East and elsewhere, and create a global DIS base, will require cooperation between many stakeholders through initiatives like Small Cell Forum. Success will rely on a supportive regulatory environment in spectrum and enterprise sites; and an ability to share costs and resources between enterprises, neutral hosts and operators. The more enterprises demand the benefits that strong indoor mobility delivers, the more willingness there will be for these groups to make common purpose, and deliver a new generation of digital indoor systems.