The next generation of cellular is an evolution of wireless network design that will breathe a revolution into how and where the network is deployed. In doing so, it will upend the relationship between mobile operators, neutral hosts and local authorities, heralding an era of mutually beneficial collaboration.
All of this comes under the umbrella term “5G”, which is being used to describe not just how the network performs, but also how it is built and the breadth of applications that it enables. The significant anticipated leaps in performance are being achieved through a new radio access network (RAN) that leverages more spectrum in higher frequency bands.
Local authorities represent a key stakeholder in the pursuit of this performance leap. They are in the unique position to enable densification of the site grid in towns and cities by facilitating the deployment of infrastructure such as small cells on publicly-owned assets, both indoors and outdoors.
In this article, we will examine the need for enhanced coordination between stakeholders in the 5G era, from the perspective of mobile operators, neutral hosts and local authorities.
Mobile Operators: Densification is a costly, complex challenge
The challenges faced by mobile operators in commercialising 5G NR are twofold because it is as much of a technical challenge as it is a financial one. This is particularly true in the case of site grid densification, which is an inherently expensive process that requires careful planning.
Mid and high-band (or mmWave) spectrum, where wider channel bandwidth is available, will drive the need for densification because of the unfavourable signal attenuation characteristics that it exhibits. In short, mobile operators will require exponentially more sites to maintain a similar level of signal quality with higher bands.
This means deploying mobile network infrastructure as close to end users as possible is now more important than ever. A combination of strategies can be employed to achieve this, including the deployment of more lattice, monopole and rooftop multi-band macrosites. However, it is small cells that are the true next step in network densification.
Small cells are attractive to mobile operators because they are just that, small. By virtue of their physical size and low power output, deployment is relatively simple and cost-effective. They can dramatically enhance network performance by aggressively re-using spectrum in greater densities and reducing load on the macro network.
The crux for mobile operators is, of course, the question of where small cells can be deployed. In crowded towns and cities, it is often the case that local authority assets such as street furniture (consisting of traffic lights, benches, bins and lighting poles) provide an ideal location for the placement of small cells.
However, planning legislation has failed to keep pace with small cell deployments in a number of markets, stifling investment in mobile network infrastructure. This is precisely where local authorities need to step in to bridge the gap.
Local Authorities: Small cell deployment introduces new opportunities
The deployment of small cells on publicly-owned assets is a radically new precedent that will change the relationship between mobile operators and local authorities. The latter stakeholder is new to this challenge and, therefore, it is important to set out appropriate goals and priorities from the beginning.
While these goals will vary by local authority, there will be significant overlap. It is, perhaps, most important to consider the fundamental purpose of working with mobile operators to improve connectivity. For many, the purpose will be to enable social inclusion and to reduce the digital divide, while others may seek to monetise existing assets.
In every case, local authorities should set out to define a strategy that minimises visual pollution and disruption to existing assets, promotes market competition and creates flexibility in the deployment of future equipment upgrades. A coordinated approach is required to achieve this, and to minimise the burden of administration.
Local authorities will need to assess the suitability of their assets to house small cell infrastructure. This is a much more complex task than it would seem, as it requires the examination of everything from power supply (which may be unmetered) to the availability of (dark) fibre and ducting for backhaul.
Cost will be of paramount concern too. There is often a lack of clarity as to which stakeholder should pay for the deployment and continued maintenance of small cells on local authority assets. This is exacerbated in cases where the power supply to the asset is unmetered (and consumption is based on an estimation of the existing equipment in use).
Service Level Agreements (SLAs) will be necessary to reduce exposure to risks by each stakeholder. These ensure there is access to the asset when it is needed, perhaps for upgrade or repair works. However, in a similar fashion to cost, it may be difficult to define SLAs that are agreeable to both local authorities and mobile operators.
Neutral Hosting: A leading deployment model for small cells
In addition to all of the aforementioned considerations that local authorities must face, they will also need to identify a deployment model which best fits their goals and priorities. It is through this model that they may be able to generate a recurring revenue stream while also retaining ownership of the asset onto which small cells will be deployed.
While a number of different models exist from concession to open access, neutral host is a leading contender which enables sharing of the active equipment across multiple mobile operators. This feature is extremely alluring to local authorities because it prevents duplication and minimises adverse visual pollution.
A single entity, the neutral host operator, can engage with the local authority to coordinate small cell deployment. This model is groundbreaking in that it streamlines the application process for small cells and reduces the administrative burden.
Upon core network integration with mobile operators and the utilisation of its own licensed or shared spectrum, neutral hosts can provide localised coverage and capacity. The cost synergies of sharing active equipment will be of particular benefit to mobile operators, and may enable a greater level of densification with a similar capex budget.
Conclusion: A paradigm shift is afoot in mobile network deployment
The fabric of mobile networks is undergoing a paradigm shift as operators weave small cells into an increasingly dense capacity layer in towns and cities. This is a change so profound that it requires a reimagination of the relationship between mobile operators and local authorities.
Local authorities possess an array of assets that are suitable for small cell deployment. By collaborating with mobile operators or a neutral host, they can enable simple and cost-effective access to their assets and, in doing so, enhance social inclusion, reduce visual pollution and promote market competition.