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Sunday, April 30, 2023

A new view on Neutral Host - the role of cities and municipalities

This post originally appeared on Apr 17 on my LinkedIn feed, which is now my main platform for both short posts and longer-form articles. It can be found here, along with the comment stream. Please follow / subscribe to receive regular updates (about 1-3 / week)

I'm at the #ConnectedNorth event in Manchester today and tomorrow. There's a lot about gigabit fibre rollouts and uptake, as well as a big emphasis on connected communities and cities - but this post is about mobile densification and small cells.

A key theme here is the fast-evolving model for #neutralhost mobile for small cells and network capacity in-fill in cities. An NH is a 3rd party wholesale provider which enables multiple tenant 4G/5G mobile providers - generally MNOs, but also potentially including private networks as well.

A few years ago when I was running NH workshops with Peter Curnow-Ford we identified this area of metro infill as one with potential, but limited actual deployments.

There are numerous challenges - MNOs ideally don't want separate deals with each city authority, while cities don't want multiple MNOs independently requesting 100s of sites with associated street clutter, road closures and soon. Authorities also want to both make money from access to assets such as lampposts, and to improve connectivity for citizens and businesses as fast as possible.

One option floated was for authorities to build out their own private 4G/5G networks, then allow MNOs to roam onto them, or use some sort of MOCN network-sharing arrangement. But MNOs each have different coverage / capacity holes, different spectrum bands, different customer groups - and also worry about security, ability to manage radio units, do carrier aggregation and so on. The idea of a single cell network in its own spectrum, with multiple MNO tenants is appealing, but sometimes unworkable. (It might work OK in villages or indoors, though).

What's happening is that another model is evolving. Local authorities like city councils are contracting with several infrastrucure specialists - companies like Cellnex UK , Freshwave, Ontix, BAI Communications and Shared Access to run (essentially) small-cell as a service offers. These act as intermediaries, allowing local authorities to create standard contracts, and for MNOs to have standardised processes for getting access at each site.

It reduces the frictions and costs of the paperwork - and also allows for infrastructure-sharing to evolve over time where it makes sense. Coupled with vRAN or open RAN it can put some of the electronics into central facilities, reducing street-side box numbers. And it means MNOs can get coverage in their preferred locations, with backhaul/fronthaul and power supplies simplified.

The competitive infraco/towerco angle, rather than exclusive area concessions, allows MNOs to choose the provider that is the best fit - and without needing different processes in each city.

It's not quite what I expected NH models to look like - and they may differ in the US or across Europe - but it seems to make good sense here in the UK.


Saturday, April 29, 2023

6G convergence or "network of networks" must be bi-directional, not assume a 3GPP umbrella

This post originally appeared on my LinkedIn feed, which is now my main platform for both short posts and longer-form articles. It can be found here, along with the comment stream. Please follow / subscribe to receive regular updates (about 1-3 / week)

 Following on from my (rather controversial) post the other day about #6G and #IMT2030 needing to be indoor-primary and also have an IEEE / #WiFi candidate, I'm now going to *further* annoy various people.

There's a lot of talk about 6G being a "network of networks". This follows on from previous similar themes about #convergence and #HetNets. At one level I agree, but I think there needs to be a perspective shift.

There has been a long string of attempts to blend Wi-Fi and cellular, going all the way back to UMA in the 2G/3G era around 2005. (I was a vociferous critic).

There's been a alphabet-zoo of acronyms covering 3GPP gateway functions or selection/offload approaches - GAN, ANDSF, TWAG, N3IWF, ATSSS - and probably others I've forgotten. From the Wi-Fi side there's been Hotspot 2.0 and others. More recently we've seen an attempt to bridge fixed and mobile networks, even going as far as pitching 3GPP-type cores for fixed ISPs.

Pretty much all of these have failed to gain traction. They've had limited deployments and successes here and there, but nobody can claim that true "converged wireless" is ubiquitous or even common. 99% of WiFi has no connection to cellular. Genuine "offload" is tiny.

But despite this, the 6G R&D and vision seems to be looking to do it all over again. This phrase "network of networks" cropped up regularly at the 6GWorld #6Gsymposium events I attended this week. It now usually includes integrating #satellite or non-terrestrial (NTN) capabilities as much as Wi-Fi.

But there's a bit of an unstated assumption I think needs to be challenged. There seems to be unquestioned acceptance that the convergence layer - or perhaps "umbrella" sheltering all the various technologies is necessarily the 3GPP core network.

I think this is a problem. Many of the new and emerging 6G stakeholders (for instance enterprises, satellite operators, or fixed providers) do not understand 3GPP cores, nor have the almost religious devotion to that model common in the legacy cellular sector.

So I think any "convergence" in IMT2030 must be defined as bi-directional. Yes, Wi-Fi and satellite can slot into a 3GPP umbrella. But satellite operators need to be able to add terrestrial 6G as an add-on to their systems, while Wi-Fi controllers (on-prem or cloud based) should be able to look after "naked" (core-free) 3GPP radios where appropriate.

This would also flow through to authentication methods, spectrum coordination and so on. Also it should get reflected in government policy & regulation.

My view is that 3GPP-led convergence has largely failed. Maybe it gets fixed in 5G/6G eras, but maybe it won't. We need #5G and 6G systems to have both northbound and southbound integration options.

I also think we need to recognise that "convergence" is itself only one example of "combination" of networks. There are numerous other models, such as bonding or hybrids that connect 2+ separate networks in software or hardware.


Friday, April 28, 2023

6G must be indoor-primary and have a Wi-Fi candidate technology

This post originally appeared on my LinkedIn feed, which is now my main platform for both short posts and longer-form articles. It can be found here, along with the comment stream. Please follow / subscribe to receive regular updates (about 1-3 / week)

I'm giving a lot of thought to #6G design goals, priorities & technology / policy choices. Important decisions are coming up. I'll be exploring them in coming weeks and months. Two important ones I see:

- 6G / #IMT2030 must be "indoor-primary"
- There must be a IEEE / Wi-Fi Alliance candidate tech for 6G

The first one is self-evident. The vast bulk of mobile use - and an even-larger % of total wireless use - is indoors. It's inside homes, offices schools, factories, warehouses, public spaces like malls and stadia - as well as inside vehicles like trains. Even outdoors, a large % of usage is on private sites like industrial complexes or hospital campuses.

Roughly 80% of mobile use is indoors - more if you include wireless streaming to smart TVs and laptops/tablets. By the 2030s 6G era, there will be more indoor wireless use for #industrialautomation, #gaming, education, healthcare, #robotics and #AR / #VR / #metaverse and so on.

This implies that economic, social, welfare and cultural upsides will be indoor-primary. 80%+ of any GDP uplift will be indoor-generated. This suggests 6G tech design & standards - and associated business models and regulation - should be indoor-oriented too.

The IEEE / #WiFi idea follows on from this. The default indoor wireless tech today is Wi-Fi. There is a lot of indoor cellular use, but currently 5G is supported poorly - and certainly not everywhere.

While 5G and future 6G indoor #smallcells, #neutralhost and repeaters / DAS are evolving fast, *nobody* expects true ubiquity. Indoor cellular will remain patchy, especially multi-operator. And many devices (eg TVs) don't have cellular radios anyway.

This means that WiFi - likely future #WiFi8 and #WiFi9 - will remain central to in-building connectivity in the 6G era, no matter how good the tech for reconfigurable surfaces or other cellular innovations become.

IEEE decided not to pitch WiFi6 formally for 5G / IMT2020, but instead just show it surpassed all the metrics. But "we could have done it if we wanted" isn't good enough. There are no government-funded "WiFi Testbed Programs" or "WiFi Innovation Centres of Excellence" because of this lower visibility.

Governments are ITU members and listen to it. If policymakers want the benefits of full connectivity, they need to support it with spectrum, targets and funding, across *all* indoor options.

And if the WiFi industry wants full / easy access to new resources, it needs to be an official 6G / IMT2030 technology. It needs access to IMT licensed spectrum, especially for local licenses with AFC.

This idea will be very unpopular among both cellular industry (3GPP pretends it is the "keeper of the G's") and the WiFi sector, which sees it as a lot of extra work & politics.

But I think it's essential for IMT2030 to embrace network diversity, plus ownership- & business-model diversity as central elements of 6G.