With today’s smartphone culture and round-the-clock connectivity, the UK’s mobile operators are under more pressure than ever before. As consumers demand blanket coverage for streaming on the move, faster download speeds and ever-better performance, overburdened networks are struggling to keep up.
We are heading towards 5G, but thanks to this loaded network capacity, it’s still a long way off. We’ve taken a closer look at how the situation needs to change to enable a true 5G revolution – and it starts with network densification.
What is network densification?
Simply put, network densification is the process of adding extra base stations, or cell sites, to a mobile network in order to increase capacity. With more capacity, mobile operators can support more traffic and larger data transfers without interruption and at speeds consumers have come to rely on. As you might expect, network densification would be most beneficial in densely populated urban areas where network capacity is most overstretched.
Are there any other ways to increase network capacity?
Yes, there are, but many believe they’re not as viable or sustainable as network densification.
Where it’s available, Wi-Fi does a great job of bearing a huge amount of mobile traffic, but it has its limits, especially in high usage areas. Network-boosting smart antennas can enhance the capabilities of base stations, and although mobile operators are making use of them, they don’t have the power to offer a long-term solution.
Present wireless spectrum is all but exhausted, and while new spectrum would increase capacity overnight, we simply cannot wait for this to happen. We could use the spectrum currently taken up by GSM and 3G, but permanently retiring these services would likely create a whole new set of problems.
Network densification seems to be the most workable plan we have, and would allow us to extract maximum potential from the existing spectrum as we move towards 5G.
Making network densification a reality to pave the way for 5G
Though many agree that network densification is the way forward, the next stumbling block is how to fund it. Deploying enough additional base stations across the UK – multiplying each site by five or even ten stations – would rack up an extremely hefty bill.
The extra stations would probably be ‘small cells’ rather than full-scale base stations, but the word ‘small’ isn’t really any consolation here. Each one is still a complex, top-spec node in need of its own high-speed backhaul connection. From rental sites to installation, small cells are incredibly expensive to fit en masse.
We need a cost-effective way to connect thousands of extra cells to our mobile networks. There is sufficient unused optical fibre infrastructure, or ‘dark fibre’, that could do the job, but unfortunately it might not be that simple.
BT and its network division Openreach owns the vast majority of the nation’s fibre, dark or otherwise. They have so far shown reluctance to make their dark fibre available to lease for the purposes of network densification, and have even managed to resist an official obligation from Ofcom to do so. In July, the Competition Appeal Tribunal ruled in favour of Openreach’s appeal against this obligation, which would have compelled them to free up their dark fibre to the mobile network market.
So, although we have identified densification as the best solution to failing network capacity and a vital driving force of 5G, we cannot currently access the dark fibre we need to make it happen.
An alternative source of dark fibre?
It’s unlikely that this setback to Ofcom’s plan will mean that Openreach’s dark fibre is permanently off-limits, but it certainly is for the time-being. As such, there’s a growing school of thought that the only other way to secure enough dark fibre for densification is for mobile operators to pool their own resources.
“Independent mobile operators need to get together and use their considerable buying power to create urban and suburban dark fibre networks across the UK,” says David Hilliard, Chief Executive of Mentor Europe, a strategy execution consultancy with a wealth of experience in the telecoms industry.
Until Openreach choose, or are forced, to open up their dark fibre, David believes independent mobile operators have an opportunity to combine their own separate reserves of dark fibre. This ‘network’ could cover a good deal of the country, and any gaps could be filled by new fibre, funded collectively.
As David says, access to BT’s dark fibre is subject to “at least a 12-18 month delay. And then a period for Openreach to “switch on” to the dark fibre market opportunity.
“In truth, we have a bigger window now in which to make these alternative investments and secure an independent 4G and 5G future.”
To give 5G a fair chance at improving the mobile industry as we know it could, it’s essential that we get our networks in order through densification, and we can’t do that without dark fibre. Time will tell if mobile operators will join forces to find an alternative means to a 5G-capable infrastructure.