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Monday, November 11, 2019

Which will be more important for 4G/5G coverage expansion: Neutral Host, or RAN-Sharing?

There are increasing demands for better mobile coverage in areas that are technically complex, or which struggle economically with traditional MNO deployment models. 5G's use of new and higher frequencies will exacerbate the problems.

Even with a shift to pure private networks for some enterprises, there will still be a need for the public mobile networks to have better coverage for their subscribers in places such as:

  • In-building locations, including both private offices and public venues
  • Metro in-fill sites, needed to densify cellular networks in busy cities - but where cell-siting and connectivity challenges can be immense
  • Rural areas, where mobile users are sparse and sometime lower-ARPU
  • Along road and rail routes, especially where new connected vehicle uses are expected
  • Anywhere with few people, but more IoT devices
  • Business sites where multi-operator connectivity is needed (eg construction sites)

There are various approaches emerging to solve these issues:

  • More flexible / cheaper RAN deployment options for individual MNOs to extend their own networks
  • RAN sharing (including national roaming)
  • Neutral host networks (NHNs)
  • Various hybrid schemes with government involvement

The middle pair -  NHNs and RAN-sharing - are perhaps the two most interesting, as they fit with a lot of other developments around local and dynamic spectrum licensingto , OpenRAN and NFV, and a move to multi-MNO collaboration.

Yet which will win out, and in what contexts?
RAN sharing involves 2+ existing mobile operators combining network assets to save costs, perhaps through a joint venture. There are various types with differing levels of sophistication, from sharing physical towers & power, through to shared backhaul, core networks, baseband units & even spectrum. (MORAN, MOCN, etc) 

Neutral hosts are 3rd parties which build a RAN (and may have spectrum of their own) and which then sign up national MNOs or new niche/private cellular providers as tenants. Again, there are various technical and commercial models emerging. 

In theory, NHNs are more flexible, and push the capex to the new host operator. 

But what are the practicalities? Many questions arise: 

  • Coverage locations & backhaul availability. What works best in rural, metro, indoor or industrial locations?
  • Does an NHN need a core network? Standalone? Also VoLTE?
  • Does this all apply to 4G, 5G, or both? 
  • Where do OpenRAN or modern DAS & small-cells fit best? If these overlap with NFV and netwrk-slicing, can each "tenant" MNO bring its own software, if they want?
  • How does security work for all parties? This is a huge and diverse minefield, relating to everything from RF interference and license conditions, to the physical integrity of network elements, down to lawful intercept and data-collection requirements.
  • What are the contractual & regulatory hurdles? 
  • What about other stakeholders like venue owners, property companies, towerco's and local authorities? 
  • Who puts all of this together? What's the value chain, and which systems integrators and other partners will be involved?
  • Will a neutral-host also offer neutral-edge computing capabilities?
There are no easy answers to all of this - the answer will generally be "it depends", both on use-case and national market.
I'll cover all these topics & more in next week's 2nd Neutral Host workshop in London on November 21st. Full details and registration page here: [link]

Thursday, October 24, 2019

5G will catalyse the transformation of the telecom industry itself

This is a post that originally appeared on my LinkedIn page (see here). There are numerous additional insights in the comments.

Much of the current hype about 5G relates to business and verticals. Many claim that 5G will be a central force in "transforming" industries. 

But what people in the telecoms sector don't yet seem to realise is that the very first industry that will be transformed by 5G is.... telecoms itself. 

5G is bringing a new set of challenges and complexities - new spectrum, more need for coverage indoors & in remote areas, and new use-cases and stakeholders. 

If 5G is anywhere near as important as it's claimed, then many businesses and governments will want to own it, customise it and control it directly, not through an MNO.

Meanwhile, localised and shared spectrum, arriving at the same time as 5G (but also usable for 4G) is creating a new landscape of wholesale/neutral host players, private and community operators, cloud/Internet players with mobile assets, industrial/vertical MNOs and hybrid MNO/MVNO providers. 

The old world of mobile involved 3 or 4 national MNOs, plus some TowerCos and a few consumer MVNOs. 

The new, 5G world is much more fragmented and heterogeneous. Even as regulators look at allowing mergers of the legacy MNOs, there's a Cambrian explosion of newer, cooler, more-agile niche players emerging. 

If you're interested in this topic & want to engage more deeply, I'm running a London workshop on Neutral Host Networks on Nov 21st https://disruptivewireless.blogspot.com/p/2nd-neutral-host-networks-london-public.html 

Also, I undertake private advisory work for clients on various angles relating to future telecoms & cellular provider heterogeneity and opportunities - please get in touch to discuss your needs.
 telecom neutralhost 4G spectrum privateLTE CBRS private5G

Friday, October 04, 2019

Updates on UK Neutral Host and local spectrum developments

I've written & spoken extensively about the new Ofcom rules for localised spectrum in the UK, both in new "innovation bands" like 3.8-4.2GHz and in secondary licensing of existing MNO national frequencies, such as 2.6GHz. (See here and here). The secondary licensing model is pretty unique, as it allows people to request to use telcos' spectrum resources which are lying fallow, with no plans for build-out in that location by the license holder. It's a bit like the spectrum-leasing model seen in some countries' remote areas for mining or community wireless.

As well as pure private networks, I see value in these bands for neutral-host propositions, and various forms of infill/coverage-extension. NHNs involve third-party operators offering wholesale capacity to MNOs and sometimes other service providers, either in their own spectrum, or some sort of shared infrastructure.

The first* example of the secondary reuse scenario has been announced (link), by Digital Colony's unit StrattoOpencell and Vodafone. OpenCell now has access to VF's 2.6GHz band, for a private LTE network covering a holiday site for caravans, in Devon in SW England. Most of OpenCell's previous focus has been on in-building, although in the last few months it has acquired outdoor assets as well.

The site currently uses Wi-Fi to provide broadband to caravans, as running fibre to each doesn't really make sense. However, there is significant interference between the outdoor site Wi-Fi and any "indoor" hotspots used within each of the thin-walled mobile homes for connecting PCs and other devices. 

The idea is to provide fixed-access 4G from a central LTE base station, to a Wi-Fi unit in each caravan. The cost will be paid for as part of plot rental fees charged by the site owner to the residents/visitor, bundled in with power and water and so on.

For now, this is a Private LTE service for local FWA. But it could be extended to SIMs for onsite mobile devices (perhaps the site's own staff phones or IoT devices), or support Vodafone's smartphone MBB subscribers onsite. I guess it could also handle WiFi-Calling / SMS for other MNOs' users (if the signal is strong enough and the phones set up correctly) or perhaps even allow roaming. 

I'm not sure if the agreements with Vodafone and Ofcom to reuse spectrum locally would allow full neutral-host, broadcasting the IDs of the other UK MNOs, though. Maybe as the various network-sharing and national-roaming options under consideration by the UK Government evolve, that could be a possibility.

In theory, I also guess Vodafone could have offered this by itself, either to the site owners or the individual tenants, but most MNOs aren't really geared up to work on individualised local business-models such as this, especially if they involve new infrastructure, new pricing plans and so on. It is also unlikely to set up a "micro-MVNO" for the site owner, if it needs to install hardware in a new location.

This is something of a new variant of private and Neutral Host mobile - and one of the first I've seen to use local secondary spectrum, rather than national licenses acquired by a wholesale specialist (such as Dense Air, in Ireland or NZ). 

I could also imagine a future vertical-sector specialist (let's say a new firm called Camping Mobile) could try to do this for multiple sites, perhaps working with OpenCell or other NHN providers as technical enablers.

There definitely seems to be a bit of race between the new US CBRS deployments, and the UK's new local spectrum models, to see which gets the most innovative new concepts and mobile networks to market. The German industrial 5G band and a few others are worth watching too. 

I'm tracking and speaking to numerous NHN providers in the UK and elsewhere - and it's pretty fascinating how diverse their spectrum, backhaul and go-to-market strategies are. For 5G, rather than 4G, there's an interesting overlap with Open RAN as well, but that's a post for another time.

If you're interested in a deeper dive, I'm hosting my 2nd NHN public workshop on November 21st in London. See (here) for details, or (here) to discuss a private internal advisory engagement.

*This is the first example to be based on Ofcom's new licensing regime. Arguably a trial deployment from friend James Body's Ch4lke Mobile / Telet Research got there first in concept (see here and here). There's also early NHN trials at some of the UK's DCMS 5G testbed projects, such as AutoAir and 5GRuralFirst, and private cellular at several others.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

5G & Neutral-Host Thought Experiment #1

Reposted & extended from original LinkedIn post (link) - main comment thread on that page

Here's a thought experiment, to test your ideas about 5G, indoor wireless, neutral-host networks, URLLC and network-slicing.

It's a plausible scenario which seems simple, but actually has lots of complexities. It's the sort of thing that marketing departments might suggest as a use-case for 5G, but in reality, "it's not that simple".

Imagine it's the year 2025. 

There's a large office building on a business park... with a faulty elevator. The elevator company sends out one of its local maintenance engineers, who works as a contractor. 

He arrives with an AR headset, running an application to deliver repair instructions and record the fix, linked to the manufacturer's cloud-based diagnostics, image-analysis and compliance/recording platform. Given the safety issues such as fall-risks, it needs a low-latency connection to avoid the risk of nausea and distraction. 

But.... what's the network coverage like in the lift-shaft? Is there outside-in signal with <1GHz 5G? Or is there a DAS or multi-operator small-cell system? Is there a private cellular network with local spectrum? Does it support integration with all outdoor / public networks equally well? Can it support URLLC with a guaranteed SLA? What network is the engineer's headset SIM registered on, anyway? Is there a voice/video connection for looping in a remote expert? And how would that work?

Whose responsibility is all of this? Is it down to the building owner? A smart-building specialist? A neutral-host provider? Should the elevator manufacturer integrate local connectivity with Wi-Fi or 5G NR-U? How do they deal with sub-contractors? Is it possible for "slices" or performance guarantees to work on the indoor (possibly private) network? Is there a separate core network for the indoor system? Who designs, tests or pays for it? Who's liable if the network fails? Is there any need for edge-compute and storage as part of the application design - and if so, where is it and how is it accessed?
There are no easy answers here. The real world for many "5G" applications is going to have to deal with these heterogeneous situations, with workarounds and fallbacks. 

In this case, it seems pretty clear that the AR headset will have to have an offline mode, with blueprints & manuals stored on itself, or the engineer's phone or PC. Or the engineer will use the headset to record video, and then go back outside the building to upload it & call in for advice. Inefficient, but safer. When good-quality coverage is available inside the elevator shaft, the work can be concluded faster & more reliably - but it won't always be possible.

This is the first of a series of "5G Thought Experiments" that will help people think more about realistic scenarios and use-cases. I'll be focusing on ones that touch on opportunities for 5G, Wi-Fi6, neutral-host, cloud-native and private cellular. I'll be doing some as podcasts, so sign up here. I'll also be touching on these in my upcoming Neutral Host workshop on November 21st 2019. Details here.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Is there a potential market for 5G or other connectivity insurance policies?

[Reposted & slightly extended from my LinkedIn post here - see that page for some really good discussion in the comments]

This is a completely speculative post, on an area I’ll happily admit I know little about. It might be complete nonsense, or it could be a billion-dollar idea. Or it could be trivial & exist already with a different name. 

So: What happens if you blend radio spectrum policy & licenses, and 5G or WiFi networks, with the insurance industry? 

Is there a potential market for insuring radio networks against failures (interference, coverage gaps, latency etc), especially in enterprise environments? 

Or insurance against interfering with others' networks in shared spectrum like CBRS? (Sort of like radio liability insurance)

At the moment there is huge wariness by conventional operators or vendors in offering full SLAs, especially in mission-critical environments. Understandably, on the other hand very few users or developers will want to risk their mission critical (or possibly safety-critical) applications on networks that could fail. They're certainly not likely to pay much extra for a "slice" or QoS guarantee that has no penalties for failure.

Few existing incumbent spectrum-holders will be willing to share their bands, without governments forcing them to, either. Could a C-Band satellite operate be satisfied that their links would be interference-free, if mobile networks were allowed partial access to the band?

Insurance could offset some of these risks - although it would likely need more data and better measurement in order to calculate premiums.

Regulators typically focus on worst-case scenarios, rather than probabalistic ones. Insurance could put a price on problems, and enable more efficient use of spectrum resources. 

The insurance industry is good at modelling risks, and costs of various types of failure or problem. As well as familiar forms of insurance that pay for a replacement car or house if damage is incurred, some pay out based on specific measurable parameters, such as wind-speeds of a certain strength in a given place. This is called "parametric insurance" -
well-explained here by Swiss Re ("The key criteria for an insurable trigger is that it is fortuitous and it can be modelled”) or in this article.

This could be a huge & beneficial area, if my gut feeling is correct. It's not easy - and various of the LinkedIn comments highlight complexities and problems. But it seems to me that there could be something here, at least in situations where network coverage/performance can be both modelled and measured. There are various other intersections & use-cases I can think of too. 

Comments welcome! 

(Also: a hat-tip to Richard Womersley of LSTelcom, who I discussed this with briefly about 18 months ago).

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Future Spectrum Policy: 10-year Disruptions

Yesterday, I presented & debated on disruptions & directions for spectrum-management, at UK regulator Ofcom's annual spectrum conference in London. The slide-deck (it was just a short 15-minute intro) & my Twitter thread are at the bottom of this post.

I was on a panel with representatives from Google (Simon Saunders, who looks after EMEA connectivity partnerships) & the FCC (Julius Knapp, Chief of Rules & Policy Division)

This was a really fun session, as my remit was to look into the medium-to-far future (10 years or so) and think about some totally new angles on spectrum for upcoming regulatory policy. Often, I throw rocks at things that don’t make sense… This time, it was more like tossing rocks into a pond, and watching the ripples propagate & stimulating ideas.

My previous presentations at Ofcom events have been on more immediate needs on spectrum: sharing models, local cellular, Private LTE, Neutral Host* networks [see comment on upcoming workshop, below] and the need for “network diversity” rather than just enabling a 3GPP 5G monoculture. This was about taking a much longer view.

Some of the topics I covered were:
  • Designing spectrum management policy (& future 6G mobile systems) with a direct link to implied energy consumption / CO2 emissions from its usage
  • Asking the question “will harmonisation be as important in future as it has been in the past?” given that we’re ever better at creating software abstraction layers, and creating multi-radio / multi-band chips and devices.
  • The next stages of dynamic spectrum allocatin: towards fluid spectrum marketplaces, API-led spectrum platforms, and radio resource within broader “Mobile Network-aaS or Satellite Service-aaS” concepts
  • Ensuring that spectrum allocations and processes ensure multiple delivery/business models are supported: services, private, amenity networks etc. This contrasts, for example, with existing national licenses for mobile spectrum, which are geared strongly to the MNO business model.
  • My new disruptions/distractions framework for realistic assessment of predictions of tech deployment & market evolution (see this post)
  • Spectrum releases aimed at more device-to-device & intra-device usage (for example between components on a circuit-board)
  • Potential post-Brexit divergence for UK #pectrum policy (we didn’t get a chance to drill into this much)
Overall, it was a really enjoyable session (my Twitter thread is at the end of this post). It might odd to describe a regulatory event on radio spectrum as “fun”, but this panel was certainly lively and wide-ranging. My co-panellists talked about everything from DevOps and just-in-time spectrum availability, to taking the lessons from US CBRS and expanding to other bands or regions.

I'm looking forward to similar events in the UK and other regions, both on spectrum (eg mobile / WiFi / satellite needs) and other regulatory angles on future networks and communications. Please get in touch if you need a speaker or panellist.

*Neutral Host Networks — if this area is of interest, I am running a 2nd London public workshop on Nov 21st, with Peter Curnow-Ford MIoD Details here: https://disruptivewireless.blogspot.com/p/2nd-neutral-host-networks-london-public.html And if you’re interested in a private internal session for your own team, please see here: https://disruptivewireless.blogspot.com/p/private-workshops.html

Dean Bubley presentation at Ofcom Mapping The Future 2019 Spectrum Conference from Dean Bubley

My Twitter thread for the rest of the event is here.


Friday, August 30, 2019

Timing is everything: Why telecom industry visions get it wrong


One of the things I find most frustrating about technology forecasts and visions – especially in telecoms and mobile – is the lack of awareness of adjacent issues and trends, or consideration of "gotchas" and alternative scenarios.

So for example, when telcos, vendors or policymakers predict what 5G deployment, or network-slicing, or edge-computing or anything else might result in – applications, uptake, revenue opportunities and so on – they often fail to ask two critical questions:
  • Distractions: What are the prerequisites for this to happen? What are the bits of the overall wider system that are forgotten but necessary, to make the headline technology feasible and useful? And when will they be achieved? What's the weakest link in the chain? Is delay inevitable?
  • Disruptions: What else is likely to happen in the meantime, which could undermine the assumptions about demand, supply or value-chain structure? What's going on in adjacent or related sectors? What disruptions can be predicted?

This post has an accompanying podcast, on my SoundCloud:

Internal distractions & pre-requisites

So for example, for 5G to be successful to the degree that many predict (“trillions of $ of extra GDP”, millions of extra jobs etc) there first needs to be:
  • Almost ubiquitous 5G coverage, especially indoors, in sparse rural areas, and in other challenging locations
  • Enough fibre or other backhaul connectivity for the cell-sites
  • Suitable software and hardware platforms to run the virtualised core and other elements
  • Enough physical sites to put antennas, at low-enough costs & with easy-enough planning
  • Many more engineers trained and qualified to do all of the above
  • A decent business case, for instance in remote areas
  • 3GPP release 16 & 17 to be completed, commercialised and deployed, especially for the ultra-low latency & high-reliability applications.
  • Optimisation and operational systems, perhaps based on as-yet-unproven AI
Yet vendors and policymakers often gloss over these "annoying" practicalities. There seems to be an attitude of “oh, they’ll have to make it work somehow”. Well, yes, perhaps they will. But when? And at what cost? What changes does that imply? How will the gaps and limitations be bridged? And what happens if firms go bust while waiting for it all to happen? What other ways to solve problems can users pursue sooner, that don't involve 5G?

A key implication of this is that timing and profitability of massmarket adoption is often much later than expected. While Amara's Law might eventually apply (we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long term), that doesn't mean that early initial adopters and investors make the returns they'd hoped for.

External disruptions and substitutes

Perhaps even more pernicious is the lack of situational awareness about parallel developments elsewhere in the broader tech ecosystem. These undermine both demand (as alternative solutions become viable in place of the hoped-for technology) and supply / operation (by throwing up new complexities and gotchas to deal with). 

These are often not just “what ifs" but “highly likelies” or "dead-on certainties".

So for instance, the visions of network slicing, or edge-computing for 5G (which will really only crystallise into large-scale commercial reality in maybe 4-5 years) will have to contend with a future world where:

  • 5G networks are still patchy. There will still be lots of 4G, 3G and “no G” locations. What happens at the boundaries, and how can you sell QoS only in certain places?
  • There will be a patchwork of “uncontrolled” locations – they might be 5G, but they could be owned by roaming partners, indoor network providers, private localised cellular operators and so on. How will a slice work on a neutral-host's network?
  • An ever-greater number of devices spend an ever-greater amount of time on Wi-Fi – usually connected to someone else’s fixed-line infrastructure and acting as either uncontrolled, or a direct arbitrage path. 
  • Telcos have to cap their energy use and associated CO2 emissions, or source/generate clean power of their own.
  • Wi-Fi 6 will emerge rapidly & is hugely improved for many use-cases, but most 5G predictions only compare against legacy versions
  • Hardware based on "commodity hardware" runs against the current tide of semiconductor fragmentation and specialisation (see recent post, here)
  • Devices will often have VPN connections, or use encryption and obfuscation techniques, which means the network won't be able to infer applications or control traffiic.
  • Users and devices will use multiple connections together, either for arbitrage, aggregation, or more-sophisticated SD-WAN type models.
  • Pricing, billing, customer support and security will be challenging on "federated" 5G or edge-compute networks. Who do you call when your network-slice doesn't deliver as expected - and how can they diagnose and fix the problem?
  • Liability and accountability will become huge issues, especially if 5G or slicing is used for business-critical or life-critical functions. Are your lawyers and insurers prepared? 
  • AI will be used for instant price-comparison, quality monitoring & fault reporting, collective purchasing and even contractual negotiations. "Hey, Siri, mimic my voice and get me the best discount possible with the customer-retention agents"
These are just some basic examples. Once you get into individual verticals, particular geographies or even specific companies, a whole host of other issues start to crop up  - sector regulation, value-chain shifts, government involvement, expectations of 20-30 year tech cycles and so on. Sure, in theory 5G might fit into various industries' own transformation journeys - but they won't design around it.


I find this all very frustrating. So many company boards, strategy departments or lower-level product/service management teams seem to operate on the basis of "all other things being equal..." when the one certainty is that they won't be

So the two sets of factors tend to be multiplicative:
  • Distractions are internal to a new concept, and lead to delays in technology launch, market maturity and revenue.
  • Disruptions are external and often inevitable, but any extra delay increases their range and impact yet further.
It's never possible to predict everything that might get delayed, or every possible disruption from adjacency. But it seems to me that many companies in telecoms don't even bother to try. 

Companies accept the "hype cycle" as inevitable, even if it might be possible to flatten it out.

By coincidence, while writing this post I started reading "Range" by David Epstein (link) which talks about the importance of "analogising widely", and the risks of narrow expertise and superficial analysis, rather than looking for implications of cross-sector / cross-discipline similarities and lessons. 

When evaluating new technologies and service concepts, CEOs and CFOs need to rely less on familiar industry echo-chambers and consensus hype, and instead seek out critics who can find hidden assumptions, both internal and external to their plans. This isn't just a negative exercise either - often, a "ranging" exercise throws up unexpected positives and opportunities from adjacency as well risks.

This post has an accompanying audio podcast - click here & please subscribe!

I sometimes get asked to "stress test" ideas and plans, and help companies avoid expensive mistakes, get started on future glitches today, or prepare for and avoid contingencies and unintended consequences. 

Often, that exercise will throw up new opportunities as well. Usually, a collaborative (but candid) group workshop ensures this isn't a blame-game, but a path to smoother growth and innovation. The skills and mindsets can be learned and replicated, too.

If that type of approach sounds interesting, please get in touch with me, either by email (information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com) or via LinkedIn (link).