I had the opportunity to witness what it’s like moving into a brand new tower block apartment in London recently where some relatives moved in. I was struck by the contrast between the high standard of basic services provision with the thoughtlessness of cellular service. The industry seems be getting distracted with 5G while simply ignoring the needs of its customers.
Modern day services for up to date apartments
I’m sure this scenario could be applied in many cities worldwide, from San Francisco to Singapore or Sydney to Shanghai. A brand new residential tower block fitted out to a high standard, occupied by tenants and owners alike.
Heating is supplied by a district combined heat and power system. Electricity is supplied through a “smart meter” which can be remotely read for billing purposes, avoiding the need for meter reader to visit. Everthing from fresh water to garbage collection is fully installed and ready to go.
Internet service is where it gets interesting. There is a dedicated fibre installed into each apartment terminated in a 4 port LAN router. Eight Cat 5e (maybe Cat 6) cables are pre-installed to dual RJ45 sockets in the living room, dining area and bedroom. Suitable locations for TVs also have satellite TV antenna feeds.
In this case, the fibre has been installed by an independent communications wholesaler – not BT Openreach or Virgin Media, the dominant UK wireline and cable providers respectively. Instead, IFNL (Independent Fibre Networks Limited) have pre-installed the fibre ready for retail to end customers via several ISPs.
Tenants and owners take out a contract with one of these ISPs who then sends them a Wi-Fi access point, similar to arrangements when buying broadband internet from many other “over the top” ISPs. Contracts are normally for a minimum of 12 months – there isn’t the equivalent of pay-as-you-go SIM only deals on offer as for mobile, presumably because they need to amortise the cost of the home hub box and administration related to each new account.
Information on four supported residential ISP websites was (to say the least) highly variable. Some didn't mention IFTN at all. Others allow for account opening to be done completely online. In practice, because this was a brand new apartment, the address wasn’t recognised (despite being published by the Post Office, arguably the ultimate reference of whether any UK address exists). A phone call was required during office hours which took about 15 minutes to provide all the details, listen to all the contract conditions and confirm acceptance. At least the call centre warned in advance of the time required to complete the formalities.
The Wi-Fi box was promised to be delivered within 14 days and internet service connected within a further 14 days, although it arrived three business days later and was operational within an hour.
There is a choice of speeds from 60 to 300Mbps downlink at different price points, all with unlimited usage. Slightly surprising to me since it’s all fibre was that the uplink speeds are a fraction of the downlink rates. Pricing for the starter package of 60Mbps down/10Mbps up was £28/month (around $35) including tax plus a £99 ($120) connection fee.
There is no “POTS” copper telephone cable. If you wanted a dedicated phone service for the apartment, that can be provided by the ISP as an additional service. Streaming TV service is also available to include some 300 channels, catch-up play-on-demand for all the main broadcast channels with many premium sport, film and specialist options. Of course you could bypass that by using Netflix or similar over-the-top streaming services.
Meanwhile, the heating, electricity, water was all functioning immediately. It may take a little time to catch up on the bills and opening accounts because in some cases the utility companies hadn’t registered the new apartment address on their systems.
A faster and more convenient Wi-Fi business model
From the end customer perspective, I’m sure everyone would want and expect full Internet broadband service to be available for immediate use alongside the other utilities. With fibre activated to every apartment, what could be done to pre-equip, test and pre-provision at least a basic service?
One option is for IFTN to install their own Wi-Fi access point in each apartment. As a wholesale only operation, they are unlikely to want to do that partly because they would require some additional capabilities including everything from lawful intercept to content filtering. This could be done on a registration required/public service basis, even with a pay-as-you-go, as found in many retail outlets and other public areas.
Another option is for one of the ISPs to pre-install their own Wi-Fi nodes in every apartment. While this could be on a sale-or-return basis, they may take the view that a high percentage would take up their introductory offer. Sign up online for immediate connection and full service. Regulators might perceived conflict with fair trading rules but this approach wouldn’t prevent end users taking out service with any other ISP.
A third option is for ISPs to approve a generic “Virtual CPE” Wi-Fi box which can be remotely provisioned with their own software and settings. This would allow each ISP to continue to operate their own internal systems without needing to send equipment out to each end user.
I’m sure that some of these business models are already implemented in various countries but the information I have is patchy.
Cellular service remains an afterthought
I checked service quality for each of the four main UK cellular networks. Two were barely adequate near the windows and didn’t work in about half of the apartment (which wasn’t that large). The other two networks seemed to be OK. Once hundreds of occupants move in, the performance may well drop, particularly at peak times of day.
A likely outcome will be that those who suffer poor cellular service, missing incoming calls and/or flaky service, are likely to churn to a different network provider. It may take too long for network operators to recognise the poor service quality from nearby cellsites and install capacity upgrades.
Some will argue that using Wi-Fi inside each apartment could compensate. At least one UK network offers seamless Wi-Fi voice calling on certain phone models (without the need for an App). Whether this is satisfactory remains to be seen – I still struggle remembering to switch off Wi-Fi when I leave home because it just drains the battery and frequently causes more problems than it solves.
An alternative approach
I think the business model used by Free France is still incredibly effective, despite being overlooked or ignored by most other cellular operators. Every new wireline broadband customer (including those directly connected by fibre) is provided with a box that includes both Wi-Fi and an open access femtocell. This offloads huge amounts of traffic from the outdoor network and makes best use of their available spectrum.
As with broadband internet and Wi-Fi service, cellular operators could pre-install equipment in each apartment. Currently we are far away from being able to provision femtocell software onto a generic hardware platform on demand – each operator will require its own dedicated hardware.
So a more feasible scenario is for each operator to make it easier for tower block residents to buy/acquire a femtocell. This could be done as part of the ISP sale – an add-on option when they sign up for their Wi-Fi box.
A more complex but technically achievable scenario is for the wholesale broadband provider to become a cellular neutral host provider, installing their own Femtocells (or alternative in-building wireless cellular technology) and aggregating the traffic for each network. This could be done either by sharing spectrum (the ip.access SUMO approach), installing a multi-operator DAS solution or provisioning each femtocell to a specific network operator’s frequency. There would be an additional revenue stream for the wholesaler, partly funded by the end user (who might pay towards the femtocell cost) and partly funded by the operator (who might pay a small monthly fee for the traffic carried).
Perhaps in the US, we might see Private LTE networks deployed using the CBRS band in the not too distant future.
Cellular service provision in premium tower blocks today remains far behind the curve of other utilities. Some radical new thinking is needed to address this premium market. While the industry feasts on the hype of 5G technology innovation, in my view what’s really needed is more focus on the business case and practicalities of delivering great customer service from the outset.
Today’s professionals moving into modern tower block apartments expect telecom connectivity from the day they move in. They are being outclassed by “old fashioned” essential utilities like water, heating and electricity that are available without fuss.
A serious reset to focus on end-user needs is urgently required.