5G has ‘crossed the chasm’ – so how can neutral hosts enable businesses to move from proof of concept to deployment at scale?
Out of the starting blocks
The next generation of mobile technology is upon us, with 5G becoming readily available around the world and significant activity in standards, trials, and deployment. In the early 1990s, Geoffrey Moore’s seminal work promoted a technology adoption lifecycle – and it seems that UK 5G has now ‘crossed the chasm’.
However, we still have a way to go. In the UK, the first real network activations started last year, but 5G is yet to become mainstream. Despite efforts to roll it out across access networks, 5G remains relatively elusive on customer devices.
We have created a first-rate innovation ecosystem that is trialling capability across many vertical segments. But, as an industry, we now need to ask how we can deploy the technology at scale and that, invariably, comes down to business models.
A dynamic market
There have been two recent headwinds moderating the early rollout of 5G in the UK. First, the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic saw traffic shift away from traditional ultra-urban hotspots. This meant that communication service providers (CSPs) had to rapidly change their focus to maintaining network quality and ‘keeping the lights on’.
The second force has been recent policy to remove high risk vendors from the network. 5G deployments are built on existing 4G stacks, so this constitutes a major technology swap for several CSPs.
In spite of these headwinds however, macro forces have also provided a positive trajectory for the technology.
The digital sector is playing a massive part in the post-pandemic recovery. Populations will return to cities and increases in mobile traffic will continue. In a post-pandemic world, technology will play a vital role to make that return as safe as possible by providing solutions to detect overcrowding and manage social-distance in high -footfall areas.
Moreover, the launch of smartphone devices with 5G spectrum bands this year will have a significant impact on network rollout. And, while it is true that incumbent equipment vendors are shrinking in the marketplace, it is heartening to see the growth of Open radio access network (RAN) development.
Opening up the RAN – from innovation to policy
Radio access network (RAN) spend is by far the largest portion of investment in any communication network. Open RAN is all about disaggregating the wireless access system. Splitting the RAN into well-defined, functional portions, with agreed interfaces, allows smaller players to enter the supply chain, resulting in more competition and faster innovation cycles. Evidence of this new ecosystem can be seen with Vodafone’s first Open RAN radio site being activated this summer in Wales, as well as the recently announced Telefonica/Rakuten partnership to increase economies of scale.
Innovation, in turn, is linked to government policy. This autumn, industry body techUK has been holding a series of events to uncover the potential of Open RAN technology, charting its likely evolution and the benefits it can ultimately deliver.
techUK’s Communications Infrastructure Council brings together companies with a strong interest in wireless and fixed-line telecommunications infrastructure. This year, I was fortunate to chair the group and there has been a deep focus on 5G. Working groups have been established to shape policy on the end-to-end 5G ecosystem, spectrum, security, fibre, and shared infrastructure, which is central to the neutral host framework.
Neutral hosts – a new breed
A new group of entities are emerging to serve 5G vertical industry segments. These range from system integrations, mobile network operators (MNOs) themselves, private companies running industrial networks, property companies, and neutral host service providers.
The term neutral host covers a wide variety of players, focusing on different market segments from rural networks and stadiums through to transport corridors or the ‘infill’ of metropolitan areas using small cells.
BAI Communications, a leading global provider of neutral host communications infrastructure, specialises in connectivity in difficult-to-reach environments, such as underground tunnels or crowded city centres, where it makes more sense to deploy a shared network that can provide multi-MNO signals. This provides both logistical and cost benefits.
Neutral host providers, such as BAI, are also technology agnostic. This is because many technology variables come into play, depending on the nature of the location covered, applicable market regulation, and the delivery timescales required. By keeping the range of available technology options broad, we are able to provide a more effective solution.
Of course, irrespective of technology, success also depends on the ability to build relationships, trust, and a collaborative spirit among stakeholders as we work towards mutual goals.
Making 5G small cells a reality
A lot of effort has gone into analysing and developing 5G use cases for industry segments, mapping them against the various 5G functional drivers, such as high speed broadband, ultra-low latency and massive IoT. A recent example is the work done by the World Economic Forum to compile a compendium of use cases. By employing the neutral host framework, these relatively abstract use cases can be launched as real-world solutions.
BAI is particularly interested in the 5G outdoor neutral host space. Building on the city-wide transportation use case are adjacencies such as smart city, public safety applications, and urban small cell and IoT networks.
The urban small cell need, known as network densification, is driven by the ever-increasing demand for mobile data. To serve customers and run applications with the higher frequencies at 5G’s disposal, cells must be placed as close as possible to the point of need.
The Small Cell Forum is the leading body to define small cell solutions and works with regulators and municipalities to remove barriers to making small cells a reality. This October, BAI joined the Small Cell Forum as a board member to contribute to the incredible work being done in this area.
While 2020 has been a turbulent year, 5G is here to stay. BAI’s annual Connectivity Outlook Report surveyed rail users across five major cities and a key trend seen was the widespread demand for transport authorities and operators to invest in 5G networks. I believe that neutral host networks are key to providing 5G solutions at scale, enabling us to move from proof of concept to deployment.
The success of this neutral host model relies on collaboration among stakeholders, from MNOs and neutral host providers to regulators, venues and local authorities.
By enabling business models, we can make a significant contribution to widespread connectivity in mass transport corridors, cities and dense urban environments both in the UK and globally. This will play a key part in the post-pandemic recovery. And more importantly, it is an exciting opportunity to provide lightning fast 5G connectivity, helping people move more safely, smartly and securely, and improving user experience.
The digital sector is playing a significant role in the post-pandemic recovery.