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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.


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