Around the world, people are increasingly coming to terms with the necessity of connectivity for home, work, and on public services, such as transport, in terms of efficiency, safety, and security.

We certainly expect the public and private services that we use to adjust usage patterns and changing circumstances in real time, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Innovative applications using robust connectivity will be increasingly relied on, making communications infrastructure essential to the economic recovery of a variety of organisations and economies.

Read on to know what Andrew Conway, Director of Engineering at BAI Communications, UK, Chair of TechUK’s Infrastructure Council, member of the Small Cell Forum Board of Directors has to say about the evolution of connectivity infrastructure in response to post-COVID technology innovation.

We’ve been living in the midst of a pandemic long enough to start understanding and analysing how organisations, industries and economies are reacting to the new world created by COVID-19. This pandemic is reshaping our society into a digitally hyperconnected ecosystem. Increasingly, we are seeing evidence, including our own independent research for our latest Connectivity outlook report, that the time to invest in connectivity infrastructure for a post-COVID world is now, to bring forward some of the necessary and urgent benefits of such investment.

5G comes of age and connected technology

5G has many applications that will drive its effectiveness and uptake by businesses and public entities. We are also at a point where artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and data analytics capabilities are maturing. We can do so much more with real-time applications harnessing the capabilities of 5G in terms of speed and latency, combined with the computing power of AI and analytics.

The demand for safe and secure public services, such as public transport systems, has been heightened by COVID-19.  The ‘Connected technology’ solutions can make those services safer by providing real-time service information or warnings about crowding or access problems to help people make more informed decisions about how they use them.

There is an increasing appetite from public authorities to develop smart applications in areas like transport and public safety, especially in light of the pandemic. Public service providers realise they need to be responsive to the flow and behaviour of people, which can change abruptly, as we’ve seen this past year. To be effective, these smart city applications need a lot of data. If a city planner, for example, wants to use aggregated anonymised mobile data to understand how the flow of a city changes, but can only access one carrier’s data, the insights would be very skewed or possibly invalid for the broader population.

The rise of small cells

Increased data drives the need for a denser network, in turn driving the need for small cell technology.  Demand for small cell architecture is on the rise, driven by 5G, particularly at the higher frequency bands employed. This makes it harder for distant rooftop macro cellular sites to cope and was the key driver behind BAI Communications’ recent decision to join the Executive Board of the Small Cell Forum.

Recent intergovernmental announcements point to a renewed focus in infrastructure investment. As society slowly returns to ‘normality’, we will ultimately see the return of high data volumes in our key urban cities. London as a ‘Global City’, will see that demand rise. ‘Global Cities’ are ranked by many different measures (one well-known is the AT Kearney Global Cities Report) which all consistently point to cities that are interconnected, a hub for jobs, excellent transport systems, and an engine for growth. BAI’s attention is not only focused on major city connectivity, we are also now seeing increasing demand for small cell and smart city applications outside capital cities.

The same public bodies previously outlined, whether they are city municipalities or transport authorities, face numerous barriers to small cell deployment due to project complexity, stakeholder management, and health and safety issues. These challenges can be solved with engineering, design, installation, maintenance, and project management skills that BAI has developed in some of the biggest transport networks in the world: New York, Toronto, and Hong Kong. And beyond the technical and operational aspects, it is also about making it work financially, which becomes even more relevant in the current economic climate.

Deployment at scale using neutral hosts

This is where neutral host networks (NHNs) can play a key role. NHNs with access to both physical assets (such as street furniture and poles) and backhaul transmission, can provide a shared service for multiple MNOs, as well as stakeholders requiring Internet of Things and smart city services.

As a neutral host with this capability, BAI sees small cells becoming an increasingly important tool in delivering shared and bespoke networks for a range of smart city and transportation customers. Collaboration and partnerships will be essential in the next wave of mobile deployments, bringing multi-operator services to private sector enterprise and public sector communities alike. BAI’s decision to join Small Cell Forum aligns with our mission to build 5G-ready communications infrastructure that connects people, enriches communities, and advances economies.

Globally, the Small Cell Forum develops the technical and commercial enablers to accelerate small cell adoption and drive wide-scale densification, gathering requirements from service providers and enterprises and as directed by the Board. These inputs shape its work in the areas of: 5G small cells; planning, management, and automation; 5G regulation and health concerns; multi-operator neutral hosting; private networks; and edge computing. A key initiative BAI is working on with other members of the Small Cell Forum is to record and capture a common set of architecture requirements for neutral hosted small cell networks.  Once published later this year, this will become a reference design which will facilitate best-practice and accelerate adoption.

A renewed focus on infrastructure

One of the foundational responses to COVID by society, business, and government is the exponential increase in taking up and evolving digital technology, resulting in a corresponding dependence on connectivity the likes of which we hadn’t anticipated. Furthermore, people are increasingly expecting resilient, always on connectivity. In that sense, recovery will be reliant on digital technology. The result is that digital infrastructure will emerge stronger from the pandemic.

All of this points to a key role for neutral host network providers; especially those strongly aligned to 5G, smart city, small cell, and public service use cases.