The UK’s National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has criticized the level of coverage achieved so far with 4G and urged early action to improve service availability, including preparation for 5G.
The organization’s report particularly highlighted the role small cells will play in providing good services in urban areas, and on roads and railways, where the NIC says cellular coverage is “frankly appalling”.
Small Cell Forum welcomes the NIC’s report because it highlights that excellent mobile coverage is no longer a luxury, but essential to social and economic activity, whether people are indoors, outdoors or on the move. It is clearly essential that the “digital deserts” identified by the study are removed.
Small cells will be essential to that task, bringing coverage cost-effectively to remote areas, as well as roads and railways, while adding capacity in areas of high usage. The NIC predicts that tens of thousands of small cells will be needed in urban areas to support 5G services, and calls for these networks, as well as roadside and trackside connectivity, to be in place by 2025.
Much of the discussion, when the report was released on December 14, was around 5G, and whether the UK would deploy it more quickly than it did 4G. However, improving coverage is not something which needs to wait for a new generation of technology. 5G will certainly support new services and new levels of capacity and reliability, but in the meantime, better coverage for passengers and rural communities, and better quality of service in areas of high usage, are achievable now, using current technologies.
The UK government’s priority is to deliver universal, predictable and good quality mobile coverage to all its citizens and visitors, regardless of technology. That means creating the environment in which the mobile operators can achieve this and still make a profit. That is eminently possible using currently available small cell technologies for 4G and, in some cases, 3G.
Examples round the world show operators improving coverage dramatically, and affordably, using small cells. Some of these examples are in the countries which are highlighted as being ahead of the UK in mobile broadband availability – not just the 5G trendsetters like Japan, but nations like Peru or Colombia.
The barrier to ubiquitous coverage is less about technology and more about logistics. To deploy cells in large numbers in cities, or in remote areas, simplified processes are needed to acquire sites (often municipal locations like lamp posts); to secure equipment approvals; and to deploy and manage the sites physically. National and local government can facilitate this with a stringent review of the regulations for deploying small cells, to accelerate build-out and reduce cost of ownership.
The NIC report points to this, calling on local authorities to work with operators to enable small cell networks, and also to amend regulations to lower barriers to entry for new service providers, which might have a different business model for challenging commercial environments like remote communities.
A streamlined framework to deploy small cells rapidly and cheaply would result in a dramatic improvement in coverage even before 5G. 5G networks will certainly be based on small cells, probably at a new level of density, but those should be planned to support new services, while current coverage challenges can largely be addressed today, if the UK puts the right processes in place.