Seekers of 5G opportunities and challenges tend to focus on retail consumer and business services that mobile network operators (MNOs) can offer to end users. But there is a third tier of 5G services and enablers that is often overlooked: wholesale, in which one service provider sells capabilities to another MNO. Wholesalers can reduce costs and improve efficiency for operators, enabling them to improve coverage, deploy more quickly, and potentially reduce their aggregate impact on the environment.
Various models are evolving that are midway between today’s concept of the “independent tower company” that provides shared sites for base stations, and a national-roaming or network-sharing agreement between mobile networks. Companies that are not traditional MNOs, are able to run their own small networks and sell the connectivity back to the usual MNOs.
That access can be paid for by the mobile networks, venue-owners and/or others – various commercial models are possible. The frequencies used by the network depends on the business model, which can use either dedicated spectrum owned by the neutral-host operator, unlicensed or shared frequencies, or the MNOs’ own bands. The NHN (Neutral Host Networks) may offer spectrum and interconnects to multiple MNOs and use their spectrum. They typically use small cells, but not always.
It is critical that policymakers and telco executives understand the possible future role of NHNs in accelerating 5G deployment, especially in difficult-to-reach locations such as rural/remote areas and indoors.
It is important to note the difference between “shared” networks and “neutral” networks. Shared infrastructure usually involves two or more existing MNOs that pool assets and systems at some level, to reduce costs or operational footprint. Neutral infrastructure allows any network operator – existing or new, national or local, public or private – to piggyback on the systems and assets of an independent third party.
NHN use-cases & applications
NHN have many possible applications, but the main common theme is the extension of 4G/5G networks into areas with poor or costly coverage. While this mostly reflects difficult economics or tricky accessibility for standalone MNOs, an important secondary motivation is for property owners or government authorities to have more control of wireless - and ideally monetise it. The most important use-cases for NHN deployment are:
- Rural / remote areas with challenging deployment economics for individual MNOs. Shared or neutral infrastructure could enable more effective coverage for local communities, either in the existing MNOs’ spectrum or in new bands.
- Metropolitan centres that need 4G/5G densification with small cells, for example to add capacity in areas with concentrated demand. Often, it is tough for MNOs to find and rent new sites individually. NHNs can work with local authorities or other organisations to put (shared) radios onto lamp-posts or other street furniture.
- In-building coverage, especially for large sites such as offices, stadiums and hotels. This is a core challenge for MNOs, especially with the new higher frequencies that are common for 5G. Increasingly, venue owners want to run their own networks, enabling good coverage for all the public MNOs for the benefit of guests and employees. Some also want their own private networks as well.
- Road and rail coverage (and potentially in-vehicle). Having each MNO deploy its own 5G infrastructure alongside transport arteries will be difficult, given that there are practical issues with siting and backhaul connectivity. Shared or neutral models will become increasingly important – especially if the road/rail agency also needs its own connectivity for internal use.
- Industrial sites and large transport hubs that increasingly want their own private networks, for Industry 4.0 or other applications. They may also want to give access to the national public MNOs on the same infrastructure – NHN is a possible model to cope with both.
- Temporary sites and events (eg festivals or major construction projects).
- Some classes of residential and small or medium-sized commercial venues, which could also benefit from NHN services, for example in university campuses.
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This article was first published by CWJ Press as part of a series of UK5G Magazine specials comissioned by DCMS. You can access the digital version here.