In 3G and 4G, building mobile networks was all about scale. A few large companies invested in hundreds of sites in order to support national services in each country.
In 5G, it is completely different. While the MNOs will upgrade those national networks, 5G needs to support a huge variety of applications for different industries. No single type of deployer will be able to make a strong case for supporting all these, so we expect to see greater diversity in the organizations rolling out 5G or densifying 4G.
In 5G, in other words, variety and diversity (of cells and their deployers) will replace uniformity. Regulators are helping the process by extending shared spectrum, or earmarking airwaves for non-MNOs, enabling more companies to deploy cellular networks in order to support sectors and services with very specific needs, while complementing the wide area mobile broadband of the major operators.
And this is one of the most important areas of work for Small Cell Forum in the coming year, because so many of the networks which will be rolled out to support the new enterprise or industrial 5G use cases will be based on small cells. Those use cases will often be used deep indoors, and by many thousands of users and sensors, which can only be cost-effectively reached by deploying small cells in every corner.
The risk of diversity, however, is fragmentation. It is hard to make the economics of 5G add up if every enterprise is deploying its own cellular networks in its own particular way. This is why SCF has identified neutral host models as one of its most prominent work items for 2019 and 2020.
Neutral hosts can build platforms at scale while ensuring that they support the specific requirements of enterprise and industrial services – which in many cases are hard for MNOs to invest in, since their successful model focuses on mobile broadband pipes that provide generic capacity to any application.
The clearest example is deep indoor penetration – neutral hosts are emerging whose whole business model is based on indoor small cells, which have generally been hard for MNOs to roll out profitably. As 5G use cases evolve, there will be neutral hosts supporting more specialized requirements on a national or international scale, such as very high availability and security to support businesses with critical communications requirements.
Enterprises, MVNOs, specialist service providers and the MNOs themselves can then ride on top of these shared systems, greatly reducing their own costs of reaching industrial customers.
These neutral host models also address another big challenge of the non-MNO, enterprise small cell model. These networks need to be multi-operator so that employees, guests and customers can use them regardless of their MNO, and it is far easier for shared infrastructure providers to deploy a network and attract operators to support it, than for individual enterprises to do this.
At SCF’s Small Cell World Summit in London recently, almost every session in the conference touched on neutral host models and how they would accelerate and diversify small cell deployment. A wide variety of potential deployers – including tower companies, pure-play small cell neutral hosts, fiber providers and telcos’ wholesale units – were all represented. It was clear that this diversity will be essential as an increasingly wide range of locations and enterprises will need to be supported, from large sports venues to remote industrial plants.
It is important to remember than most neutral hosts do not regard themselves as an alternative to MNOs. They are focused on enhancing the MNO’s business case for densification by allowing them to share networks more easily and by reaching locations that are not cost-effective for mobile providers.
If the MNOs themselves start to realize the advantages of being able to reach enterprise and industrial customers without having to invest in the build-out, a new cooperative landscape could emerge which will change the face of mobile roll-out and greatly accelerate densification.
SCF has set up a neutral host working group and has several items at the top of its agenda to drive this industry forward. After the SCWS event, it also issued the following set of recommendations to facilitate neutral host expansion round the world, and these will form the basis of work items in the coming months.
- Drive availability of multi-operator product sets to improve cost of neutral host deployment.
- Facilitate cooperation and understanding between MNOs, neutral hosts and enterprises to lower barriers to shared networks.
- Lobby regulators to earmark spectrum for shared or neutral host use.
- Target local authorities as important anchor tenants for neutral host networks.
- Support technology and define business cases for shared edge compute as a complement to small cells.
- Define frameworks for cooperation between owners of different assets, such as fibre and sites, to ensure an end-to-end neutral host platform and a single relationship for tenants.