The following case study highlights a not uncommon scenario where a building owner can’t meet the needs of its users, not because of technical limitations or even financial ones but because there is simply no process in place to approve and connect small cell network equipment paid for and installed by third parties.
A modern mid-sized mixed use office building
The 10 storey building pictured below (located in Canada) is 130,000 square feet including a large 60,000 square foot underground parking garage. Around 100 people work inside the building and the top three floors are being converted into a 100 room hotel, which will add a further 100 to 150 users.
As you can see, the building is constructed with the latest environmentally friendly materials and the glass in particular limits RF signals penetrating inside. In common with other buildings in the neighbourhood, mobile phone performance inside the building is below expectation from all national networks, and the building owners have a strong incentive to improve it.
Technical options for In-building service
Buildings of this size rarely justify a full DAS deployment after adding the cost of separate basestations from each network operator to drive it. An “off air” system is possible but unlikely to deliver the capacity required.
A small cell solution would fit the requirement well, and a building of this size justifies the use of one with a centralized controller such as from Spidercloud or Airvana. Some of the higher capacity standalone products may also be feasible, such as Alcatel-Lucent, ip.access, Contela and others. Ideally both 3G and 4G service would be provided to achieve maximum compatibility with today’s wide range of smartphones. Other options include Ericsson’s Radio Dot and Huawei’s Lampsite which require some fibre to distribution cabinets on different floors.
Canada has three national network operators, with Telus and Bell Canada sharing their 3G infrastructure in a national roaming arrangement. It should therefore be possible to install two sets of small cells (one for Rogers and one for Telus/Bell) to serve all networks.
Compared to a full DAS system with associated basestations, the small cell alternatives are much more cost effective, even when accounting for duplicate systems to cater for multiple network operators.
In the past, we have seen building owners demand high site rental fees in return for network operators installing equipment and providing service to their customers. More recently, the emphasis has changed because the importance of good in-building service affects the rental value and sale price of building space.
Most building owners have paid directly for Wi-Fi equipment to be installed and managed, serving both employees and visitors. They would be prepared to contribute towards (and in some cases fund entirely) the cost of an in-building solution that meets their needs.
If the small cell solution could be deployed by a system integrator at reasonable cost, each network operator would simply have to provision these onto their network – effectively adding substantial quality (and capacity) with little expense.
I’ve heard of European and Australian DAS deployments where the equipment is handed over to a lead network operator. Each network operator then pays for their own basestation equipment and backhaul to drive it. Since a small cell deployment includes the basestation function, it should make it even more commercially attractive to them.
Instead of paying ever higher licence fees for additional spectrum and the associated equipment cost to make use of it, in-building systems reuse the same spectrum and the building owner provides equipment, power and a secure site.
Not open for business
Sadly, few network operators have any operational processes in place to connect up such equipment. There’s no business process to apply for a connection or pre-approval as an equipment installer. It seems that operators just aren’t interested in the business benefits of free basestations and maximising spectrum use.
Compare that with a district municipality approving a new sub-division or housing estate. Typically the developer is expected to construct the roads which (after some time) are adopted by the local authority who then maintain them.
Local building owners don’t have the ability to operate their own in-building cellular networks today (because they use licenced spectrum), so co-operation from the network operators is essential from the outset. The alternative is to go down a Wi-Fi route which is already happening but has some constraints – mobility as you move around the building isn’t as good for example.
Wi-Fi Roaming treated quite differently
Although it varies across different regions, we have seen some network operators open up their networks for Wi-Fi roaming. This effectively allows their customers to seamlessly connect and use Wi-Fi facilities that they may have little or no oversight of. Others haven’t taken this route, partly because they would prefer to provide service over a managed network and partly because they can’t charge the same rates for Wi-Fi traffic.
Neutral hosts required?
The logistical difficulties that each mobile operator sees with dealing directly with many thousands or tens of thousands of building owners may be insurmountable without some radical change.
One option we saw proposed at Small Cells Americas was the intervention of a Neutral Host, an intermediary company that deals directly with the large number of building owners, but aggregates and simplifies the interaction for each of the major networks.
Such companies would work with system integrators and installers, typically those already installing the Wi-Fi inside such buildings, which would simplify the transactions for all parties. Some training for building surveys, equipment installation best practice and commissioning would be needed, but this is relatively simple and straightforward to achieve.
Building owners and property developers around the world are becoming more frustrated with the limited options available to address poor inbuilding cellular coverage.
A wide range of technical solutions are available today to solve those. The bottleneck is the lack of commercial processes and procedures in place for networks and building owners to partner together to resolve the issues.
Neutral host businesses may be a commercial solution to this logistical problem, unless network operators themselves are able to scale up to deal with the pent-up demand.
Taking advantage of this untapped potential would improve the financial returns of network operators, reducing the need to acquire ever more spectrum while reducing the funding required to achieve substantial network capacity expansion and improved customer satisfaction.