Neutral hosting is a term widely used in the telecommunications sector to refer to a range of different configurations. The commonality between these configurations is that there is some aspect of the passive or active infrastructure being shared, although precisely what is shared can vary. This shared infrastructure, although potentially owned one operator, is “independent” between the multiple operators sharing the service it provides. This new resourcing model compares to the historical model of network deployment, where each operator has their own masts, RAN and core. Sharing components between operators can potentially reduce costs of deployment, depending on who is willing or able to share, and to what degree. The flipside is the more any operator shares their infrastructure, the less they control, and the harder it can become to differentiate their offering on quality-of-service grounds.
The historic use of the term “neutral hosting” simply refers to the shared use of passive infrastructure – a dedicated tower company like Cellnex or the Wireless Infrastructure Group (WIG) provides a physical tower, and one or more operators can rent access to this tower on a neutral basis, upon which they can install equipment. Part of the attraction of this model is that it can simplify the deployment process for an MNO. In a similar vein, although historically UK mobile operators owned their own tower infrastructure, over time two major joint ventures formed from this (which can own or lease access to passively shared towers) – CTIL and MBNL. Cornerstone Telecommunications Infrastructure Limited (CTIL) is a joint venture between Vodafone and Telefonica O2, and Mobile Broadband Network Limited (MBNL) is a joint venture between EE and Three.
Both ventures were seen as a cost-cutting exercise and have since led to the emergence of a system known as “RAN share”, where each joint venture negotiate commercial terms to share active components (i.e. radios, equipment etc). Vodafone and O2’s active RAN sharing agreement (Beacon) through a multi-operator RAN (MORAN) configuration. This allows Vodafone and O2 to share base stations and avoid the creation of significantly overlapping infrastructure, while each operator utilises its own spectrum to provide a service. In the Vodafone and O2 arrangement, Vodafone predominantly serves the West of the UK, while O2 covers the East (see Figure 1).
In a further effort to reduce costs and increase revenue operators may divest themselves by becoming a dedicated tower company, providing openly available passive infrastructure – the mast tower itself, the fenced compound, and power connectivity. Each of these components could be rented by anyone, while the operator can continue providing a mobile service. This idea was demonstrated in the Vodafone 2020 annual report, based on their previous year's announcement of the creation of Europe’s largest tower company, 1, which they describe as “Commercialising 2 Cornerstone”