opinion


Neutral host networks and how to support them

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Noemí de Hevia Méndez, Lead Telecoms Consultant at CGI UK, talks up the value of neural host networks and how to support them.

One of the disruptive concepts that has evolved in the telecom industry during the last years is the neutral host network. Instead of the traditional individual deployment and operation by each Mobile Network Operator (MNO), a third neutral party builds and operates part of the network offering private and public connectivity.

Currently, there are some examples of in-building multioperator neutral host networks like multi-tenanted office space, hospitals or stadiums (e.g. Stanhope and the Freshwave Group in London’s Angel Court) and trials and pilots for outdoor small cells (e.g. Dense Air in Dublin).

Making neutral host a reality requires a transformation, in conceptualisation, planning, and implementation. Although the technology is almost ready, it is unknown how the ecosystem will function at scale and industry needs to understand the business models first.

At CGI, we work closely with clients to help unlock the value of neutral host networks, and depending on your current ambitions and journey, there are several different approaches for supporting neural hosts. From analysing market drivers to neural host changes, here are a few things you should consider when deciding what to do and how to implement.

Market drivers

Neutral host network is a cost-effective alternative for network deployments to provide better mobile performance to both, individual customers and enterprises, that provides more flexibility as it is not dependent on the operators rollout plans to reach your area.

There is an increase in the importance of indoor mobile coverage and reliable indoor cellular coverage is important to Industry 4.0.  However, providing indoor coverage is becoming more difficult due to the movement to higher frequency bands and the usage of modern materials in buildings, such as low-emissivity glass. Neutral host offers the opportunity to provide indoor connectivity to a wide range of buildings, as shopping malls, hospitals, university, enterprise buildings or exhibitions and convention centres with one infrastructure for all the mobile operators.

Moreover, there are outdoor challenging scenarios, as rural and hard to reach areas, rail and road coverage or even urban densification in support of 5G deployment, where neutral host offers a competitive opportunity to serve such areas with only one infrastructure for all operators.

The recent Ofcom change in licencing means that local spectrum licences, limited by range and frequency, can be bought by non-MNOs and used to develop new business models and commercial relationships. These local spectrum licences enable private networks whose major customers are going to be enterprises with primary focus on their internal connectivity for IoT or voice applications. Once deployed, these private networks could also offer capacity to MNOs to improve mobile coverage for employees or visitors.

Neutral host challenges

There are a range of practicalities to face when pursuing a neutral host. Starting with security considerations, flexible authentication methods supporting different device types, client confidentiality as well as encryption will be mandatory for neutral host solutions.

Traditionally, an MNO gets a contract to provide SIM cards to their consumers. In neutral host network scenario, the responsibility for SIM provisioning and profile management needs to be agreed whether the MNO would need their own SIMs/eSIMs profiles or this would be the neutral host operator responsibility. In addition, the increase in the number of networks may challenge the current capacity for numbering and mobile network codes (MNC) addresses.

Before network operators are able to use an equipment in their network, they subject them to various tests and certifications, including security, integration and performance. Neutral host providers and operators will need to work together to integrate all the requirements and specifications into a common standardised approach.

It would not be enough to improve connectivity in a certain location in an isolated approach, the user would expect to have a seamless and continuous coverage moving in and out these locations. Interconnectivity and roaming processes would need to be in place to enable the mobility between public and neutral host coverage so the system could support an automatic network selection without user intervention. Otherwise, international or even national services and applications could stop working on the neutral host network if it is not fully interoperable with other networks and platforms.

Normally, the neutral host provider will charge for providing access services based on a set of complex rules related to the network resources used. Innovative billing systems will be needed to achieve rapid time to market with high levels of automation and performance.

And finally, governance, the formation of the neutral host operating company is paramount to success: who will actually deploy, pay for, own and operate the assets. A clear structure and roles definition and alignment of business objectives between different stakeholders is needed before starting to ensure smooth deployment, operation and end customer experience.

Summary

Lack of seamless mobile coverage and poor user experience is unfortunately common in many indoor locations and certain outdoor areas. There are multiple applications that drive the market for neutral host networks and provide an opportunity for addressing connectivity challenges. With the new Ofcom local spectrum licence, neutral host networks have the potential to address this need. However, there are still some challenges that need to be tackled.

It can be complex bringing together the different players to create the ecosystem of consultants, network operators, equipment vendors, regulators, cloud providers and end users. However, in our experience, delivering complex, mission critical systems ensures the strategy and roadmaps you develop and implement are realistic, achievable, and bring value to the organisation.

 

Noemi has held technical, commercial and budget management roles in the wireless telecom industry for the past fifteen years, working in Spain, USA and the UK. Noemi collaborates on multidisciplinary projects to deliver city transformation, providing expert advice on digital connectivity challenges including the integration of communication infrastructure with urban systems and technologies.

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