Graham Payne, CEO of Opencell, reports success with their business proposition installing multi-operator small cells at Enterprises across the UK. Although not yet fully neutral host, he reports strong demand, viable price point and success. We asked him what the ingredients for success are, and how the industry could evolve to improve matters further.
Graham was RAN Director at T-Mobile and subsequently CEO of MBNL UK from 2008. MBNL was created as a joint partnership between T-Mobile UK and Three UK to consolidate not just their macrocell sites but also all their RAN operations, staff and equipment. It rationalised thousands of duplicate sites, streamlined backhaul links and installed shared 3G basestations that served both network operators. Field staff were contracted to work for MBNL rather than their respective parents. Overall, substantial cost savings were achieved.
The business model was continued when T-Mobile merged with Orange to form EE, and the competitive advantage led to it being adopted by Vodafone and Telefonica who fully share the network via their joint venture company CTIL and project Beacon.
In 2015 Graham setup Opencell, together with Nick Brown (previously ip.access sales director) and Paul Graham (an expert in Enterprise site installation). Chris Burke (ex Vodafone CTO and RIM CEO) is the company chairman. Making up the senior team is newly recruited cellular in-building coverage expert Brendan Hourihane
What does OpenCell offer?
We saw latent demand – frustration even – from building owners and businesses that wanted good service for all their customers regardless of which operator they use. We’re working with hotels, managed offices, casinos, shopping centres and recreational, leisure & entertainment centres. Though business customers tied into a single corporate account will be still be addressed directly by their operator.
This isn’t a true neutral host where a single set of small cells is shared by all operators and routed through a central gateway. Each small cell is connected directly to its host operator – there is no shared gateway switch through which all traffic is concentrated.
Instead they use Enterprise Small Cells to provide in-building cellular service from all four UK networks at a 75% lower price than DAS including basestations. Parallel sets of small cells are installed, one set for each operator. Typically a single dedicated LAN is used with a single separate fibre backhaul through the Internet. Each installation is designed, commissioned and maintained directly by the OpenCell team.
A 24/7 Data Centre with fault and performance monitoring service constantly tracks operation and identifies problems. We can remotely diagnose and fix issues, and will attend next day to fix or replace faulty hardware. We charge an initial setup fee and an ongoing operational support rate. There would also be a callout fee and additional cost for major changes, such as when the building is redeveloped, layout changed or new tenants are introduced.
How much success have you had to date?
It’s taken some time to gain approval and establish operating procedures with all four networks. Our first live trial site was switched on 12 months ago and it’s taken nine months to gain approval from everybody. In the last three months, we’ve started ramping up and now have 14 sites live with a range of 5 to 16 radio points, some 300 radio nodes in total. The largest site handles over 5000 calls per day!
Geographically these are spread across Southern England, from Derby to Brighton and include several prestigious venues in Central London including Paddington and Bishopsgate. There’s quite a mix of business types involved and no single sweet spot.
We see plenty of demand in our pipeline and few (if any) others offer such a comprehensive package.
What kinds of technical issues or problems have you had?
Service continuity is generally high, but we’ve come across a wide range of issues. We typically install a separate dedicated internet backhaul for the system, but can share a partition of existing Gigabit Ethernet. Installing our own OpenCell dedicated backhaul has proved very resilient compared to customer partitioned backhauls where we’ve seen numerous faults.
We can diagnose and resolve 90% of issues remotely. We can reset/restart any individual small cell, request an operator diagnose their small cell gateway configuration and check for results.
We’ve also had some unusual quirks. One customer complained that their handset wouldn’t work. We discovered it was 2G GSM only so is completely incompatible. Other cases include reaching around into corners of the building, where we have needed to optimise the RF power or small cell positioning.
What about 3G vs 4G?
Our solution is 3G only today simply because that’s what all the UK operators currently provide. It’s compatible with almost all smartphones, providing excellent voice and good data service.
UK operators are currently going through the new product introduction process for 4G small cells, involving lab testing and field trials. These products have only recently become available from vendors and so I’d estimate it may take some 6 to 9 months before the service is commercially productionised and available for sale. I’d also expect it to be slightly more expensive than 3G only.
Many buildings have good Wi-Fi although this can be difficult to access as a visitor or when moving about. Some organisations want to be seen as tech leaders and insist on the newest and shiniest of everything. They’ll want high speed 4G, available to staff and visitors walking around where mobility for data service is more important.
We’d really prefer a combined 3G/4G small cell rather than a standalone 4G product, which would double the number of units to 8 boxes rather than 4.
What about a neutral host service?
The technology is available to do this now, such as MOCN that shares a single frequency and only requires a single set of small cells. The real issue is getting an operator model where everyone is comfortable with visibility of KPIs, stats, operational processes, configuration and day-to-day management. Their customers would be served on a frequency by a box neither of which is under their direct control. They would all insist on an assured customer experience.
I think the UK has the best chance of succeeding with this. From our experience of MBNL and Beacon, all the UK networks are now more comfortable with others managing the network to agreed SLAs.
There will likely be a tendering process to approve neutral host organisations. Operators wouldn’t want hundreds approved, but I would encourage there to be several neutral host suppliers to establish a competitive market.