Is neutral host infrastructure the way forward?

Mobile device usage is now a vital part of everyday life, but the provision of reliable connectivity can be a big challenge, particularly in busy locations such as conference centres, entertainment venues and large shopping centres, especially at peak times.

Venue owners and Mobile Network Operators (MNO) face sustained periods of reinvestment to continually upgrade their networks and satisfy consumer demand for ‘always-on’ mobile data access. However, the use of neutral host infrastructure service can be the key to balancing the network costs with the need for dense coverage and capacity within these locations.

What is neutral host infrastructure?

Neutral host infrastructure comprises a single, shared network solution provided on an open access basis to all MNOs and is used to resolve poor wireless coverage and capacity inside large venues or other busy locations. They are usually deployed, maintained and operated by a third-party provider and they are designed to support the full range of MNO technologies.

Unlike vertically integrated networks that accommodate one technology or a single MNO’s requirement, neutral host infrastructure is a shared platform, capable of supporting all MNOs and technologies giving their customers what they are looking for - seamless coverage and high capacity. A variety of different neutral host approaches are used to provide premium wireless services in different environments, such as Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) and Small Cells Networks (SCN).  Typically fibre-fed, these networks are designed specifically to cope with periods of peak user demand and scaled to accommodate future generations of technology, including 5G.

What are the benefits of neutral host infrastructure for venue owners and network operators?

Lower Cost

Neutral host infrastructure significantly reduces network lifecycle costs, whilst offering a pro-competitive solution that supports network sharing. Neutral host infrastructure operators, such as Wireless Infrastructure Group (WIG), challenge the larger, vertically integrated telcos by creating competition at an infrastructure level. This allows MNOs to differentiate purely on a service delivery basis (through technologies deployed such as 4G or 4G MIMO) and encourages innovation through new applications and new technologies delivered through new spectrum.

According to EY’s European Wireless Infrastructure Association Report, neutral host infrastructure leads to more cost efficient use of infrastructure through greater levels of sharing / utilisation and this enables MNOs to improve the quality of service for customers by increasing the number of available points of presence, and their network speed and capacity.

Neutral host infrastructure lowers the economic threshold for new coverage by anticipating future sharing, launching with one or more ‘anchor MNOs’ who receive the cost benefits of sharing up-front.

Better Connectivity

Independent neutral host operators can deliver a more efficient form of infrastructure; with a different business model to the vertically integrated operators they are encouraged to maximise use of the assets leading to higher productivity and better connectivity.  Studies from the EY report shows that independent neutral hosts delivers up to 3x the connectivity of vertically integrated assets.

Across the UK market, WIG has demonstrated the benefits of the neutral host approach both for indoor and outdoor networks. Examples of WIGs successful deployment of DAS can be experienced inside intu Trafford Centre, the second largest shopping venue in the UK, and across Anfield Stadium, the home of Liverpool Football Club, whilst a recent partnership with O2 enabled the launch of the UK’s first fibre-connected SCN that supports C-RAN technology for faster and higher capacity mobile services in Aberdeen’s city centre. The fibre-connected SCN approach opens the opportunity for 5G networks by enabling even faster speeds, lower latency and better coordination between MNO cells than legacy network architectures.

How to overcome the challenges in Network Sharing

Restrictive RAN-Sharing

Other forms of network sharing present a variety of technical challenges and compromises that must be thoughtfully considered. For example, using a shared radio access network (RAN-share) can create restrictions for MNO’s who wish to maintain competitive differentiation capability and avoid tacit collusion. The risk of sharing active equipment can also cause network congestion and restrictions to data in areas with high traffic demand.

Regulatory and Policy Considerations

Public policy may wish to encourage ‘network sharing’ to reduce the costs of mobile service provision in rural areas.  But forced network sharing of the MNOs, such as domestic roaming, will remove all investment incentives, where MNOs are required to share their networks with competitors and lose the ability to differentiate.  Neutral host infrastructure offers a pro-competitive solution for reducing the costs of mobile broadband in challenging areas.

How the neutral host approach works best for London

Neutral host infrastructure sharing is becoming an increasingly recognised deployment tool for improving mobile broadband reach at the lowest cost; and this is essential as the next generation of 5G wireless technology is introduced. The UK MNOs face the challenge of investing in this new technology in dense urban areas whilst completing 4G coverage in rural areas.

The UK’s transport networks are pushing for greater levels of coverage and Transport for London has taken the step towards resolving the issue of transport connectivity, launching the first stage of a tender process to bring fibre and 4G to the Underground, through the deployment of neutral host infrastructure.

The tender reveals that the contract winner will secure a 20-year concession to provide a network, not only in the Underground but across London’s busy streets. TfL plans to award the contract for building and operating a neutral host network in March 2019, with commercial negotiations with the MNOs to begin shortly after. The winner will have to provide network sharing in the tunnels, stations and platforms of the London Underground together with the commercialisation of telecommunications assets above ground.

The award of this concession could potentially mean progressive coverage within the tube from the end of 2019. techUK looks forward to the announcement of the winner for the tender contract and the further developments of transport connectivity in central London and around the UK.

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