By Malcolm Keys Director, BAI Communications UK

In 2019, with the telecommunications world gearing up for 5G, the question I’m asked most often is not about the latest advances in technology, but something simpler: why can’t I get a signal?

With so much of modern life dependent on our connection it is no surprise. You could be commuting by train and unable to make a vital conference call, or one of many people who avoid a meeting room at work because it is a dead zone for your mobile phone.

This is a problem which BAI Communications specialises in solving. We help people stay connected in the most challenging places, including underground and on public transport. Our projects across the world include providing wireless connectivity on the large New York subway, through majority-owned company Transit Wireless and the Hong Kong underground system. Because of this I was delighted to speak at the recent techUK conference on what we see as the answer.

The event, entitled Neutral Host Networks: vision and reality, saw presentations from industry experts including Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department of International Trade, Dr Mike Short. Participants explored themes including market opportunities; innovations in services provided through these networks and overcoming economic challenges for network operators.

What is a neutral host?

Mobile network operators have strong commitments to provide coverage. However, some locations are very hard to reach. The problem is not normally about technology, but making it commercially viable. For example, railway lines through rural areas or sports stadia that have long periods without any people using the network.

The neutral host approach or ‘independent infrastructure’ tackles this economic problem. It is run by a standalone company with specialist expertise, often in partnership with landlords or transport providers. BAI has world-leading expertise in this approach. Our infrastructure hosts several mobile network operators as ‘tenants.’ They then use it to provide vastly improved connections for their customers. It opens up areas which otherwise would not receive this investment.

In addition, the infrastructure can provide other services such as high speed fibre for nearby communities or supporting transport routes which need strong digital connectivity.

Where is this happening?

At the techUK conference I explained BAI’s history of work in this field. Our first installation on the Hong Kong metro began in 1997 while in 2016 in New York a mobile network was launched in 281 subway stations.

During this time we have been at the forefront of innovation. First, we saw mobile network operators share sites but install their own infrastructure. Now, we can see these companies share infrastructure through a neutral host. The economy of scale this creates makes it possible to deliver connections in the most challenging locations. This is great news for the public and business which receive improved connections, with heightened productivity benefits and improved passenger experience.

The next development is the growth of small cell technology. This is where high-powered sites create a stronger mobile signal in a small area. It is vital in urban areas and inside buildings, which can block mobile connections but are home to 80 per cent of calls (according to Ofcom, the UK’s telecommunications regulator). By its nature, this requires more infrastructure to be installed. However, a neutral host can cut both equipment costs and avoid a build-up of unsightly ‘telco clutter’ in public spaces.

Why is it happening?

Despite the mobile telecommunications market being very competitive, especially in the UK, the neutral host approach is increasingly popular. As we live our modern lives online and consumers expect to be connected all times, mobile network operators can benefit from shared infrastructure. It reduces the cost of providing customers with coverage in hard to reach locations.

Trust is important too. By working through an independent organisation, all mobile operators and other users are treated equally. The landlord to tenant relationship ensures the host upgrades its network infrastructure to accommodate the latest mobile technology if the landlord wants to retain its customers.

What makes this successful? The neutral host approach can remove not-spots and increase UK mobile coverage. This means everyone can stay connected, whatever mobile operator they are with. At BAI, this allows us to focus on our priority: improved passenger experience for the public and helping to realise the economic and social benefits of staying connected while on the move.