Since the beginning of time, mobile operators have designed and built their own mobile networks. While they may have contracted out the network build responsibilities, the operators have been the ones to fund and operate mobile networks. And they are generally very good at it; look at the marketing messages from the nationwide U.S. operators and they all seem to emphasize how good their networks are compared to the competition.
But there are signs that this operator-dominant model is starting to shift, very slowly. For example, mobile operators were usually the ones to fund the build of large DAS (distributed antenna systems) for stadiums and large buildings. Certainly, in some cases the building owner requested the DAS to provide indoor coverage and may have contributed to the cost, but in the majority of cases, the operator led the indoor charge.
In fact, AT&T’s Antenna Solutions Group was principally responsible for driving DAS into many stadiums and large buildings; this group’s primary responsibility was to solve the indoor problem. Many of the installations were neutral host and so other operators were able to use the DAS as well, spreading the cost (not all DAS are neutral however; many are single carrier).
ASG was disbanded in 2015 (the responsibility for DAS and small cells shifted to each of the AT&T regional RAN groups). This, coupled with a reduction in capital spend or a shift in capital priorities, meant that the focus moved away from the indoor space. While the operators talked a lot about deploying small cells outdoors, progress has been slow, mainly due to problems with planning and zoning. Today, very few DAS projects are funded exclusively by the mobile operators.
But the need for indoor coverage and capacity still exists. In fact, the demand for indoor LTE capacity is expanding as more people use mobile devices at their desks and around their workplace. Wi-Fi has addressed this basic connectivity need for some time but the fact remains that many people want, and need, LTE. The demand will only intensify once 5G comes along in a couple of years.
Nature abhors a vacuum, as they say. And this indoor mobile vacuum is being filled by third party companies working directly with the enterprises and building owners. Rather than viewing the mobile operators as customers (trying to sell them equipment and technical solutions), the approach now is to view the operator as a partner or supplier and the enterprise as the customer. In this scenario, the operator supplies the licensed spectrum and connectivity to the rest of the network.
As well as enabling LTE connectivity, the new approach to in-building mobile also recognizes the need for computing and storage to be closer to the edge of the network. Putting a DAS and/or small cell solution in a large office complex, for example, is coupled with a small data center that can house applications and services exclusively for the office tenants, as well as edge solutions for the mobile operator. Obviously, solutions vary depending on the needs of the enterprise or building owner but the point is that the enterprise will drive the next phase of in-door mobile network deployment.
The mobile operators know there are significant advantages in this approach, aside from the reducing capital the operator must spend to get improve the indoor experience. Building a robust indoor or campus-level solution takes load off the macro network (the macro signal no longer has to serve those devices in the building) and hence improves the experience for all of the users in the area, not just those indoors. It is also important to realize that an enterprise may need LTE throughout its campus, covering many buildings – this is easily accomplished with small cells and DAS.
The net result of this shift will be that mobile operators no longer fund in-building deployments but also do not operate the networks. Operators leasing space on a third party indoor network is happening today on a small scale – this trend will continue and soon become the ‘norm’. Without this trend, it will be hard for the mobile operators to be able to extend their networks indoor – this is a new mutually beneficial ecosystem that is developing.
Iain Gillott, the founder and president of iGR, is an acknowledged wireless and mobile industry authority and an accomplished presenter. Mr. Gillott has been involved in the wireless industry, as both a vendor and analyst, for more than 22 years. iGR was founded in 2000 in order to provide in-depth market analysis and data focused exclusively on the wireless and mobile industry. In recent years, research has expanded to cover broadband telecom services to the home, as homes and businesses have become more connected.