Multiple types of organizations, not just mobile operators, need to deploy and fund urban small cell networks, if the vision of a smart city is to be economically viable. A wider range of investors in dense networks will spread the cost and operational burden, while being able to support the diverse ecosystems and services that a city will require.
This was the focus of SCF’s session at the recent DC5G conference in Washington DC, which brings together representatives from the worlds of telecoms, satellite and policy, to examine the opportunities of 5G in smart cities. SCF board member Mark Reudink of Crown Castle spoke in a session entitled ‘Who’s paying for 5G Infrastructure? Alternative Funding Mechanisms’.
The cost of building and managing large numbers of small cells in an urban environment remains too high. Ensuring that every citizen, visitor, vehicle and connected device is close to a cell will enable a huge variety of new services, with strong social and economic benefits. But the barriers remain high to achieving that ubiquitous connectivity. Most of those relate to the lengthy approvals processes most cities still have for cell sites, and the cost for the operator of siting, deploying and managing large numbers of access points.
There are alternative ways to afford the density and coverage that will support city applications from smart transport management, to interactive and augmented reality citizen services, to public safety. Many of these center on shared infrastructure to spread the cost of the network and support many services providers; and on deployment by private operators with specialized skills in city or vertical industry services.
The concept of alternative ownership models [SCF181] specifically for RAN networks (passive sites, fiber and even active equipment) has been growing in importance in SCF’s work program for a number of years. This was highlighted in many sessions in our major conference in London in May, SCWS19 [SCF237].
Urban macro sites have always been the most attractive for MNOs to deploy, to deliver services in areas of high usage and, therefore, good return on investment. However, these sites are usually located and optimized for mass market mobile broadband applications. A smart city needs good quality mobile broadband, but many other services too, and these will often require the cells to be in different places (such as roadside for traffic management), or tuned for different capabilities (such as high availability for emergency services).
So there is a rising interest in co-investment models for cities, in which different stakeholders contribute to the cost of a cellular network, and in return, get a deployment plan that fits their requirements. This applies to outdoor systems for services such as smart transport, as well as deep indoor coverage for government and public buildings.
The telecoms industry does not have a strong track record of selling to these markets. The same barriers exist as in the private enterprise space – the enterprises need network capabilities that are somewhat different from those of a generic mobile broadband network, but rarely want to pay extra for these.
The solution will often be a neutral host or private operator, which can prove the value of paying for cellular connectivity, by deploying exactly the kind of network that is needed for particular use cases, and working easily with the organization’s established ecosystem.
This argument goes for cities just as much as for enterprises, but a common shared infrastructure is even more necessary because of the large number of stakeholders who want to use it. A neutral host platform on which different providers could deliver specialized services for particular organizations would provide the scale that would improve the economics for the city and support a common experience. It would have the flexibility to allow the widest range of use cases to be supported, even those which have not evolved yet.
The MNOs could be neutral host providers themselves, or could use a third party wholesale platform to improve their own business case – they would still get increased revenues from their urban macro sites thanks to city usage, but they would also be able to offer in-building, low power and low latency services support via partners, without having to buy all that infrastructure themselves.
And for city governments, and all the many stakeholders from emergency response to refuse disposal to schools and many more, there would be the chance to ensure that their particular applications were well supported by the right connectivity in the right locations.
SCF sees two broad flavours of alternative infrastructure funding models emerging to complement MNO networks in cities and enterprises – shared infrastructure (including multi-operator networks and pure neutral host) and custom infrastructure. We have published studies of both these models, which provide more analysis of how these can provide better services for enterprises and cities, and therefore drive far more rapid deployment of small cells both indoors and outdoors:
- Shared infrastructure: [SCF218]Multi-operator signal for you building with neutral hosted small cells
Cities and enterprises are often more willing to pay towards cellular connectivity if they can ensure the networks support all their customers and staff, whichever MNO they use. Integrated multi-operator sites are also appealing for smart cities, giving predictability around the equipment deployed from a zoning perspective, and a single point of contact for the city.
- Custom infrastructure with private networks – ([SCF235] currently underway)
Whereas shared infrastructure extends the reach of MNO’s existing services, custom infrastructure supports dedicated services tailored to an organization’s specific needs. This is particularly seen where connectivity is mission critical, and here, cellular technologies are set to overtake the old proprietary technologies.
Finally, the DC5G conference highlighted the role of edge in smart cities. Edge computing [see SCF014 Edge made simple] is a perfect partner to small cell networks, taking the applications closer to point of use in order to reduce latency and avoid the capacity constraints of moving data over long distances to the cloud.
An important aspect of SCF’s activity is its role as a conduit between cities, operators, telecoms vendors, enterprises and other stakeholders in this complex value chain. We aim to provide clear blueprints for at-scale small cell deployment, understandable by non-MNO deployers; as well as many other resources which are written in the language of cities and businesses. In the coming months, our work on neutral host and private networks will evolve rapidly, and we anticipate that city stakeholders will be among the first to support these models at large scale.