Network sharing will become a standard tactic to establish dense in-building mobile coverage, with private enterprises increasingly taking charge of network operations, said AT&T at SCWS World in London. But outdoor coverage will remain the preserve of licensed cellular operators, reluctant to share capacity or infrastructure for fear of losing their edge, it said.
During a keynote and panel session at SCWS World, David Orloff, director of RAN product at AT&T, said certain features of newer LTE and 5G technologies – notably virtual RAN, virtual EPS, and mobile edge computing, along with more permissive frequency bands – make network sharing simpler for enterprises, neutral hosts, and mobile network operators (MNOs) of a certain mind-set.
“We will see more non-MNOs take capacity away. Technology enhancements are making it easier – for third party vendors, integrators, and enterprises to LTE in shared spectrum. How this works together is where it really gets interesting, as we go forward,” said Orloff, speaking at the event initially as chair of the Small Cells Forum.
“MNOs still have an opportunity, even if it’s not the classic MNO, but a disruptor MNO. We are seeing more and more disruptors,” he said. Cases of 5G network sharing are emerging variously, across the globe, notably in patches in India, South Korea and China, as well as via the CBRS band in the US.
“I’m surprised there aren’t more disruptors coming into play,” he said.
Operators are generally challenged, the SCWS World panel noted; ARPU is flat, and capital expenditure is rising. “Something has to give,” said Randall Schwartz, consultant at Wireless 20/20 and chair of the panel. “Operators need to come up with creative solutions, and one possibility is shared infrastructure. It always struck me operators might be more positive about the idea, but they are resistant.”
Orloff slipped back into his default position, in day-job at AT&T. “There are challenges,” he responded, making clear the idea of sharing capacity is hard to bear for operators in general.
“As we get down to street and pole level, there’s a lot of emphasis to get close to customer based on capacity and latency, specifically. It gets challenging to share that capacity. It’s difficult to share among multiple operators, and definitely difficult to share space on poles – just because of their capabilities.”
Radio heads are getting smaller and easier to deploy, and AT&T has a precedent for shared spectrum of sorts in the form of the FirstNet public safety network. But the question of outdoor network sharing is one licensed carriers find they cannot easily square.
“There are challenges around capacity that prohibit how much we’re going to share,” said Orloff.
But the benefits of sharing cellular infrastructure are significant, commented Graham Payne, chief executive at Opencell, which runs multi-operator in-building networks in the UK. “The advantages are huge,” he said.
Payne was previously chief executive at MBNL, the UK joint venture that negotiated and ran the shared network between operators EE and Three; he also consulted with Vodafone on its site sharing deal with O2 in the UK.
“The financial savings are phenomenal, but they are difficult [to negotiate] because the two chief shareholders are competitors, with different priorities. And if they are sharing active equipment, then sharing of capacity is very difficult, which is why we see them unwinding capacity and going on their own frequency,” he explained.
“But what happens is you go through the steps of sharing to get the deal done, and over time you can unwind that and keep savings from fewer sites. The big saving is on shared transmission infrastructure.”
Payne suggested the only way to bolster indoor mobile coverage, with modern offices fitted with low-emissivity glass as standard, is with shared infrastructure. “Breaking that in-building market is key. And shared infrastructure gives phenomenal savings, and is a way to go about it. The market will grow in the next years,” he said.
Connectivity is considered a crucial utility for many renters, noted John Gravett, head of telecoms at UK real estate firm Cluttons. “We need to give value back to the landlords, and show where the returns are,” he said, suggesting up to 60 per cent of young people want rent reductions for poor connectivity.
Freed of capacity constraints and competitive value, in-building coverage will benefit from operators sharing infrastructure, acknowledged Orloff, in the blue corner.
“We are seeing more willingness in many of these environments – in hospitality, healthcare, connected communities. There is a change in the business model; enterprises are starting to understand the value, whether the hotel gains revenue on square footage of [cellular] coverage, or apartments charging more rent [for connectivity],” he said.
Schwartz suggested operators place too much value in their networks. “That [strategy] goes the way of the dodo,” he said. “That’s less important. The most important thing is the subscriber, and owning the subscriber, and the services provided to the subscriber.”
Orloff conceded the carrier game is a services-one in the workplace, and in indoor and controlled environments generally. “Yes, I think everybody is equal to an extent in the enterprise space.”
Public spaces are different, however, he said. “It makes the outdoor space that much more important – how my service plays when I leave that [indoor] space then becomes even more important. That will drive the overall densification play, indoor with shared networks, and outdoor, without them.”
Payne pointed to shared usage of the 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum in the US. “Each country needs to adopt that [kind of approach], which probably involves shared spectrum and discussions about how that will work,” he said.
Gravett commented: “For the ecosystem to work with small cells, there has to be a better solution for shared networks. We have to go down that shared route system to make it easier to deploy infrastructure.”
Orloff warned Europe is falling behind on small cells, and network densification. “If we don’t work the densification issues in Europe, more of these [third parties] will take control,” he said, in his Small Cells Forum keynote.
“I am very concerned. Europe is lagging. It needs a new mind-set. In 5G the era, we have density needs in the entire industry, and we need to work on solutions to ensure the framework and foundation is there.”
The Small Cell Forum has focused on the enterprise space with its Release 7; its forthcoming Release 10 switches to 5G performance and deployments in hospitality, healthcare and real estate sectors.