The trifecta of shared spectrum, small cells and emerging technologies such as eSIM and edge computing are making neutral host mobile networks a reality. Enterprises and dedicated solution providers see a market ripe for change, and one in which wireless service can be actively shared across third parties on a wholesale open-access basis.

On-demand and cost-effective access to shared wireless infrastructure, all the way from the core to radios, presents an array of opportunities that are not technically or economically viable with existing public fixed or mobile networks.

Temporary solutions for events and venues such as concerts (in a post-coronavirus world), as well as permanent deployments for locations including theme parks and dense urban environments, represent some of the leading neutral host use cases.

For third parties like local authorities and municipalities, there is real benefit to be found in neutral hosting beyond the resolution of the digital divide. A radical reduction in visual pollution, for example, may be achieved through active sharing of equipment, and this can simplify deployment in terms of zoning laws and enable greater site grid densification.

The Neutral Host Model: Carrier of Carriers.

Neutral host deployment models are based on the provision of localised, commercial and wholesale wireless solutions to entities including mobile operators and other communications service providers and enterprises.

A third party neutral host provider is tasked with operating and maintaining the infrastructure, which is usually based on small cells and an on-site core network. Access to the shared network may be paid or unpaid, and it can be based on dedicated spectrum owned by the neutral host provider itself, shared spectrum like CBRS or the mobile operator’s own frequencies.

The backdrop of rapid data traffic growth and the need for intensive site grid densification amid a continued period of stagnant mobile revenues has soured the traditional approach of operators independently deploying and operating their own network infrastructure.

Indeed, this trend is particularly evident across markets in Europe, where industry titans such as Vodafone Group and CK Hutchinson’s Three have been spinning off their tower portfolios in an effort to monetise infrastructure and raise much-needed cash.

Infrastructure providers like Cellnex have been able to capitalise on this flurry of sell-off activity, and are now in a prime position to leverage these assets for potential future uses including neutral hosting.

The progressive ceding of control over both the active but, especially, passive components of mobile networks away from operators lends itself to a more frictionless adoption of neutral host models in the coming years.

The Challenges posed by Neutral Host Networks.

Despite the hype, any such adoption of neutral hosting will not be totally seamless, and there are still a number of stumbling blocks that need to be overcome. Security, for example, is an important consideration and flexible authentication methods that can support a multitude of different device types, client confidentiality and encryption are required.

Responsibilities that were once assumed by mobile operators alone will shift and need to be shared with the neutral host provider. These include SIM provisioning and profile management, as well as the testing and certification of network equipment for optimal integration, performance and security.

Other challenges such as interconnectivity and roaming also need to be addressed, ensuring that users experience seamless service and contiguous coverage across both the public mobile network and in locations served by the neutral host provider.

Automatic network selection without user intervention will be key to facilitating mobility, and service-level agreements (SLAs) will have to be defined to provide for this interoperability.

For billing, new and agile systems will be required to underpin the process of charging mobile operators for access to the neutral host’s infrastructure. Complex rules that take account of the network resources used can be orchestrated with advanced levels of automation.

The most obvious challenge to consider, however, is also perhaps the most important one: governance. From the outset, a clear structure of who will actually design, deploy, own and operate the asset needs to be defined, in addition to early alignment of business objectives across each stakeholder and role definitions.

Neutral Host in Action Today: From Urban Densification to Private Wireless Networks.

In what is a market still very much in its infancy, Airspan’s Dense Air stands out as the quintessence of the neutral host model, with operations across Australia, Belgium, Ireland, New Zealand, Portugal and the United Kingdom.

The group positions itself as a frontrunner in the field of densification-based neutral hosting, and its acquisition of dedicated licensed spectrum in mid-bands such as 2.6 and 3.6GHz in some markets has put it in a pole position to partner with incumbent mobile operators.

Guided by big data and the “DenseWare” platform, the group enables its customers to gain real-time analysis of network experience problems and to then act upon them with targeted intervention in the form of small cell deployment.

As well as being a purveyor of urban densification for traditional mobile operators, the “carrier of carriers” also has ambitions to aid in the delivery of private wireless networks for enterprises and other industry verticals.

Earlier this year, for example, Dense Air announced that its 5G testbed located at Millbrook in the UK was being migrated to “commercial grade open RAN, disaggregated RAN and cloud native 5GC-based 3GPP 5G standalone technologies”. This will be aided by Ofcom’s shared access licenses and support research with connected and autonomous (CV) applications.

Beyond Dense Air, there are numerous other examples of neutral host initiatives, including in-building multi-operator deployments in environments such as office spaces, hospitals and stadiums.

In the first half of last year, for instance, the UK’s first “multi-operator digital DAS-based” network was launched in the Angel Building in London. This deployment was tasked with enhancing the indoor 4G LTE experience, delivering minimum downlink speeds of 60Mbps through StrattoOpencell’s neutral host managed service.

In the United States, meanwhile, both American Tower and Crown Castle stand out as pertinent mentions in the context of neutral hosting. The former towerco already boasts hundreds of deployments across venues like shopping malls, casinos and convention centres, and believes localised neutral host networks can perform similar to a traditional tower on a commercial basis.

Thanks to its deployment of copious amounts of fibre and small cells, Crown Castle is also well positioned to capitalise on neutral hosting, and it has well over 10,000 nodes in operation across dozens of venues today. While the pandemic has pushed traffic away from many of these high-density locations, demand is expected to return swiftly over the course of the coming quarters.

Conclusion: The Neutral Host Model is Sprouting Wings.

As mobile operators clamor to densify their networks in urban environments, barriers are rife: excessive visual pollution, high capital intensity and unprecedented network complexity. Neutral host deployment models provide cost-effective solutions to these challenges and many more through facilitating shared access to a singular infrastructure and service proposition.

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