Neutral hosting for multi-operator mobile connectivity

Neutral host

Rethink’s Caroline Gabriel believes that the reason why neutral host will be a major theme at Small Cells World Summit 2019 is that multi-operator connectivity is a crucial driver for both small cell growth and, indeed, cost-effective network densification.

Small cell networks cannot support just one operator, if they are in public places, but if each MNO deploys their own access points, the pressure on sites and backhaul will become an even bigger challenge than it is now. The obvious solution is for all the operators to share a network, either through a common build-out, or via a neutral host provider. Yet to date, this approach has rarely been adopted – a failing that has held back deployments, even in areas where densification is most needed, such as city centers, transport hubs and venues.

As 4G and 5G densification become a necessity, not an option, in environments of this kind, operators are starting to think again about neutral host and sharing. The reduction in capital and operating cost, and the easing of the headaches of securing site approvals and optimizing performance, are all reasons to consider a new approach, at a time when MNOs time and budgets are stretched by 5G preparations.

For instance, in Japan, three of the four MNOs – KDDI, Softbank and newcomer Rakuten – are working with a power company, TEPCO of Tokyo, on a shared small cell project which will use the latter’s power lines and electricity poles to ease access to sites and power.

The three operators are particularly focused on future dense 5G networks implemented in millimeter wave bands, since large numbers of cells will be needed, and shared infrastructure will become more important. Once they finish their evaluations, they expect other partners, such as transport operators, to join the group.

This kind of partnership should become commonplace as more MNOs face the challenges of deploying large numbers of cells, often in high frequency spectrum. Its hallmarks include the contribution of different types of infrastructure by different partners, to reduce overall spending, as well as the sharing of the cost between a large number of stakeholders, all with an interest in leveraging improved mobile connectivity.

Small Cell Forum has been a major exponent of neutral host and multi-operator models and for several years, it has had working groups devoted to these subjects, and the commercial and technical enablers. Its work helps to establish best practice, based on real world case studies like the Japanese example; and by applying the collective expertise of members to the business case and the challenges, it can offer operators the reassurance of a strong body of shared knowledge, to lower the risks of deployment.

At SCWS, the results of the most recent work on neutral host models will be shared and discussed, while a variety of participants will debate important issues such as the real scale of cost efficiencies, and whether this model is a threat or a help to MNOs. Speakers will include neutral host platform providers, and other stakeholders such as city governments.

We believe that wider adoption of shared models is essential, if small cells are to be deployed at the scale that will soon be essential to support high quality services in areas of high usage and large numbers of devices. If the commercial and practical frameworks are not established now, there will be a crisis when 5G densification starts to get underway, which in some markets, like the USA, will be as early as next year. SCF is working hard to lower the barriers in time for that, and at SCWS there will be a unique chance to hear about the progress to date, and talk to companies at the coalface of neutral host, about their plans and experiences.