While private wireless is all the rage within the “uncarpeted” industrial enterprise, the biggest use case that could literally catapult the technology into the mass market is still under construction – but building quickly.
As the demand for wireless communication continues to grow, businesses are searching for more efficient and cost-effective ways to deliver reliable public cellular connectivity to their customers, staff, and visitors. Anyone who has ever visited a hospital, department store, or sports venue inherently understands the "I have no bars" problem.
At issue is how companies and network operators can better deliver customers pervasive and reliable cellular indoor connectivity for the different public cellular services over a single common shared local area network (LAN) infrastructure that enterprises already have in place.
This is one of the fundamental value propositions for neutral host networks.
The emergence of new shared cellular mid-band spectrum options in the 3.3 to 4.9 GHz range around the world, coupled with the use of so-called “small cells," has paved the way for this new architectural model that is poised to unravel this long-standing predicament.
The death of DAS?
Today the vast majority of indoor office floor space in the U.S. is delivered cellular service from outdoor macro cell towers owned and operated by big mobile network operators (MNOs). But signals from these towers often do not reach into buildings well. This challenge is only being exacerbated by modern building materials such as low-emissivity glass that attenuate wireless signals.
Consequently, businesses have been forced to install elaborate, expensive, and complex distributed antenna systems (DAS).
A DAS network is a complex array of indoor radio heads, fiber and RF-coax cables, and baseband head-end equipment on the premise for each MNO. All this equipment requires a totally new set of cabling to be installed throughout the premises. The cellular signal is typically distributed throughout the building using an extensive web of fiber optic or coaxial cabling.
While DAS solutions have existed for years, they suffer from one or more shortcomings that include but aren't limited to high implementation costs, lack of scalability, limited control, or a loss of important end-user features. Moreover, the implementation of a DAS network in a football stadium, office building, hospital, or shopping mall can take years to complete and often cost millions of dollars or more for all the necessary equipment.
Neutral host networks turn this model on its head.
The rise of neutral host networks
While not a replacement for existing DAS deployments, neutral host networking was developed to radically reduce the cost and complexity of legacy DAS designs.
By allowing small cell access points operating within newly available private cellular spectrum (e.g., CBRS) or licensed cellular spectrum to be deployed and connected over the existing enterprise local area network (LAN), businesses effectively eliminate the need for discrete fiber-optic cables to connect each DAS radio head to a central hub, the development of the hub itself, and the placement of the cellular head-end equipment (i.e., base stations).
These small cell radios for neutral host are deployed much like Wi-Fi access points but can broadcast different PLMN identifiers from different MNOs simultaneously. So, essentially each small cell acts as a “neutral host” for multiple MNOs. Users and their cell phones are completely oblivious and seamlessly connect to their cellular network service provider as they would normally. In other words, the small cell access points function just like a massive cellular tower but at a fraction of the cost and complexity.
In this model, traffic is offloaded and securely tunneled over broadband or Internet connections to the respective mobile network operator (MNO). This is typically achieved through the use of a multiple-operator core network (MOCN) gateway that establishes a secure tunnel between the private wireless core and the MNO core. The MOCN gateway provides critical service support, such as E-911 wireless emergency services, for NHN to operate efficiently and with data security in mind.
By leveraging the private wireless bands as a common, shared spectrum for indoor access, a portion of the radio access network (RAN) bandwidthcan be allocated for MNO use. This eliminates the need to use separate infrastructure equipment required by each carrier to propagate their public licensed cellular service.
Indoor small cell-based neutral host networks offer a significantly reduced footprint, lower cost, and higher flexibility than DAS systems. Unlike DAS radio heads, each neutral host radio access node adds more capacity to the network. So as capacity demands increase, more nodes can be added where the demand is high.
By doing so, multiple parties - both private and public - can securely share the same network infrastructure within an organization. This provides wireless connectivity to a wide range of MNO subscribers with the goals of increasing public cellular network coverage and capacity while dramatically reducing capital and operating costs by using a shared network infrastructure approach.
This new architecture leverages the RF and IP design efforts for multiple operators and even private networks – further improving cost efficiency.
Who wins with neutral host networks?
For enterprises, the dramatic price differential of neutral host networks, when compared to traditional approaches, stems from eliminating the need for discrete fiber-optic cables to connect each radio head to a central hub, the development of the hub itself for each MNO, and the placement of the head-end equipment.
But even more compelling for enterprises is that neutral host networking software can be simply layered atop the same private 4G or 5G network already put in place to support a critical internal use case, such as industrial automation, with little to no change to the physical infrastructure. This provides greater value, bigger customer benefits as well as a faster return on investment.
For big telecom providers, the neutral host model gives carriers easy access to a good RF footprint without incurring additional deployment expenses– attracting new business customers that require local connectivity to the enterprise as well as mobility into the public network for ubiquitous access by leveraging existing infrastructure already in place and utilizing new CBRS spectrum. MNOs can also offload capacity leveraging private neutral host networks in areas where networks are prone to user/bandwidth congestion issues, providing added scalability.
Developing neutral host business models
While the neutral host networks give operators additional coverage at a lower cost, companies better cellular coverage, and subscribers better connectivity, the business model for how all this is still developing. The main model that is emerging is where businesses pay for the neutral host service (as a potential add-on to their private cellular network) from their managed service providers (MSP) to provide a 5-bar cellular service. In return, MSPs manage the inter-working with the MNOs.
There are different models possible that vary in terms of who controls, pays, and maintains the network. Ultimately, it comes down to what the business needs and the level of operational control required.
What lies ahead for neutral host networks?
For organizations looking to benefit from neutral host networking, there are several key questions to consider such as:
- How many cellular networks need to be supported?
- What type of coverage is required and where?
- Will the network also serve as a private cellular network?
- How many users, devices, or IoT systems will access the network?
- What type of traffic will run over the network?
- Can the network be easily deployed and operated by existing IT staff over what’s in place?
Neutral host networks offer a compelling solution for organizations seeking to cost-effectively improve in-building cellular coverage through the deployment of new private wireless networks.
From hospitals to public venues to office buildings, neutral host networks are poised to revolutionize the way organizations approach wireless cellular connectivity – having a profound and disruptive impact on businesses looking to increase productivity, cut costs, and simplify IT operations.
By leveraging a shared infrastructure model that delivers cost efficiency, enhanced coverage, improved capacity, simplified management, and linear scalability, neutral host networks will likely emerge as the killer application for mass-market private wireless networks.
Manan Shah is the Director of Sales Engineering at Celona.