By Andrew Conway Director of Engineering, BAI Communications UK

All around the world, connectivity is a key driver of economic growth, creating new revenue opportunities, increasing operational efficiency and fuelling innovation. Across the public and private sector, it’s long been accepted that universal superfast connectivity will be central to the UK competing globally in the future. However, to date there’s not been a consensus on how best to achieve this.

That’s why I was delighted when the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) released the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Report (FTIR) in late July. Advocating greater collaboration via a neutral host network model, as well as densifying cellular networks by using small cell architecture, it moves beyond theory to provide pragmatic recommendations on how to deliver next-generation communications.

Going full fibre

While the report shows where progress has been made, it also recognises that the UK is not quite where it needs to be when it comes to fibre. The country is doing well when it comes to overall connectivity, with 95 percent of premises covered, but we lag behind leaders like South Korea and Japan when it comes to next-generation Fibre to the Premises (FTTP or ‘full fibre’), with just four percent coverage.

To address this, the government is proposing going beyond its manifesto pledge to provide at least 10 million premises with access to full fibre. This includes setting an ambitious new target of connecting 15 million premises by 2025, and coverage across all of the country by 2033.

Universal fibre connectivity will be central to another of the report’s commitments – providing the majority of the population with 5G coverage by 2027. This is because successful deployment of next-generation 5G wireless depends on a fibre-enabled network of base stations to deliver coverage across the country.

More efficient mobile networking

The FTIR shows that quality of UK mobile service, both coverage and capacity, has been improving for some time now, with 87 percent of the UK’s landmass is receiving 4G signal from at least one operator. A broad fibre network will be key to keeping up the momentum following the introduction of 5G, but the wireless architecture model employed is also incredibly important. The report advocates the use of neutral host infrastructure, a single, shared network offering equal access to Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) to deliver services to their customers in key locations. The approach offers several benefits, including directly addressing some of the main challenges associated with rolling out 5G.

First and foremost, it’s more economically viable. It makes sense for one neutral host deploying a single network for all MNOs to use than all of them creating individual owned networks. It also makes sense from a logistical standpoint. Delivering deep 5G coverage in dense urban environments requires the amount of infrastructure to be kept to a minimum. As the cellular market shifts from connecting static populations to connecting people on the move, transport corridors will play a key part in attaining ubiquitous coverage. As a result, it is easier for a single independent organisation with market experience to manage relationships with the transport authorities responsible for these highly regulated environments.

Small cells for accurate service delivery

The DCMS also recognised the importance of small-cell networks for the successful deployment of 5G. Data demand is growing at nearly 50 percent year on year, and will increase further with 5G. As such, both coverage and capacity will need to be delivered with greater accuracy than ever before.

This can’t be achieved with the larger rooftop antennas typically used to distribute mobile signal. They do not provide the level of accuracy required, planning permission takes too long, and there isn’t enough available real estate to locate the additional infrastructure. Small cells, characterised as low-powered, small footprint radio access nodes, circumvent this issue as they can be placed at street level on lampposts and other ‘street furniture’. Moreover, small cells allow MNOs to provide service where it is most needed. What’s more, conventional Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS), which typically provide large scale neutral host connectivity for venues, are also rapidly evolving to a small cell topology.

In the coming years, consistent superfast connectivity will be central to driving economic growth in the UK. Neutral host models have developed and matured in markets like the USA, so it’s great to see the DCMS recognising the importance of both shared networks and small cells for next generation communications. Both have been proven in environments such as transportation networks, including the New York Metro. With 5G on the horizon, it’s the perfect time to introduce them across the UK.