The approach to shared communications infrastructure owned and operated by a neutral host has different levels of maturity around the globe. A neutral host strategy ensures the right balance between investing in technology and ensuring stability of core network components for customers, writes BAI Australia’s General Manager, Service Delivery, Nathan Cornish.

Welcome to the first instalment of It’s time to share, an examination of the benefits, process, and outcomes of transitioning networks from fully owned by service providers to a balanced shared approach using infrastructure providers. Here, in the first instance, we look at the business case.

The approach to shared infrastructure owned and operated by a neutral host has different levels of maturity around the globe and across communication industries. Australia’s geographic and population spread has seen an increasing uptake over the years. For example, Southern Cross Austereo (SCA), Australia’s widest spanning commercial broadcaster, providing over 400 radio and television services nationally, engaged BAI Communications to provide a fully managed transmission service at around 320 sites, enabling efficiencies in asset ownership, operations, and network reinvestment. Recent times have also seen television broadcast industry players in Australia and around the world sharing their media playout centres, moving toward shared infrastructure and starting the discussion about outsourcing to or partnering with a neutral host.

This is also happening in other industries, such as public transport. For example, Sydney’s has a shared mobile Distributed Antenna System (DAS), enabling the common infrastructure to service all Australian major mobile operators, this reduced the investment and the physical deployment in materials and active equipment. All of which shows the drive toward shared infrastructure and opening the discussion around outsourcing to neutral host.

Technology availability

The ability to share infrastructure has been stimulated by technological advancement and a need to rely on its advancing automation, removing inefficiencies via ’smart’ technology. This will continue to be fuelled by the dawning of 5G and its need for investment as well as its flexibility. This is stimulating an opportunity to rethink the models for building, owning, and operating communications infrastructure.

Communications infrastructure – or at least core components such as towers, power, buildings, and fibre – requires a long-term capital investment. Additionally, these assets do not weather the storm over the same time frame, which makes it impossible to set and forget without any upkeep that requires further ongoing capital investment. This is where sharing a network makes the investment viable: both financially and operationally. It becomes operational (rather than capital) expenditure and is operated and maintained by a third party. This neutral host model also ensures the right balance between investing in technology and ensuring the stability of core network components.

By outsourcing the network to a neutral host infrastructure provider, a broadcaster or mobile network operator, and other services relying on communications infrastructure (such as emergency services) can focus on their core business and customer service strategy, rather than diverting resources to managing assets and reinvestment strategies. These significant dollar investments in upkeep, upgrade, and renewal of infrastructure that the service providers rely on to provide their services, are made by the infrastructure owner.

Shared infrastructure: an example at BAI

In my role, I’m fortunate to be part of a significant reinvestment program, which is, in my mind, a key element of a successful sharing of neutral host networks, as it ensures the customer’s service is meeting availability requirements over the entire life of that service. This past month, it was exciting to see the Service Delivery team complete major tower and mast replacements at four sites in far North Queensland, Australia. Each project took many months to roll out and all were completed with great success, ensuring the sites are operating effectively and are now more resilient to the damaging effects of regular cyclones and extreme weather in the area. One specific example is the pinnacle of five years’ planning with a 236m tall MF mast installed to ensure longevity of ABC’s Local Radio service in the Townsville region, providing coverage as far north as The Great Barrier Reef.The case for shared infrastructure networks

Figure 1 – Local Radio, Townsville’s new AM Mast at Brandon MF site, QLD.

Investment mix

Considering the operational and investment benefits of the neutral host model, broadcast, mobile, and emergency service providers should review their optimal investment mix, which includes adopting a neutral host model where appropriate. This will enable them to capitalise on leading-edge technology supported by robust communications infrastructure, without diverting investment away from their core business, as with the network reinvestment example of local radio for the communities of far North Queensland, which was funded by the neutral host provider.

Importantly, competitive advantage does not always need to be gained with differing core network components, in fact, these are the areas where sharing can thrive.

Success factors

Key to the success of transitioning to a neutral host infrastructure model, is providing the customer the best service and seamless transition across the networks, regardless of asset ownership. A consumer listening to the radio from frequencies on shared networks or using their phone with a signal from a shared communications tower, does not know, or mind, that the service provider doesn’t own the network. They just want to be able to listen, talk, or do things like check their email and message their loved ones. It is the neutral host provider’s responsibility to ensure the high quality of that service and the service operator’s responsibility to ensure their customers’ access to their products and services on radio, television, or mobile devices.

BAI’s unique set of communications infrastructure assets have ranging levels of sharing to accommodate differing customer needs, such as coverage, control, security, performance, ownership, and operations. In my Australian example, we own and operate the full RF transmission chain for several broadcasters in Australia, but the level of sharing this chain differs, mixed across the asset ownership and operational divides. In New York, we are a neutral host for most of the DAS communications chain for the mobile operators in the Subway. However, in contrast in the same network, we also enable the Metro Transport Authority (MTA) to own key components of its network, to ensure legal and security requirements are met, while only utilising our services to maintain and respond to performance changes. It is our ability to be flexible in the sharing model that enables our customers to be comfortable with not owning the entire communications chain.

What’s next

The next instalments in this series will highlight more of the key investments and initiatives that I am lucky enough to lead or contribute to as General Manager, Service Delivery in Australia. In this role I oversee the engineering and project teams building and reinvesting in our shared network. I look forward to sharing them with you.