How site sharing supports socio-economic development

Digital transformation, innovative business models, sustainability, high-quality connectively, support for socio-economic development…not everyone that would think of mobile phone masts when they hear those words. But we all should. Here’s why.

Of course, it goes without saying that mobile infrastructure, and its deployment, matter to connectivity. As 5G emerges, the role of towers and masts in driving connectivity – and with it, productivity, efficiency, competitiveness and growth – will become more pivotal than ever.  

And of course, 5G-driven smart and sustainable cities are on the way. While software, AI, high-speed data and intelligence in the network will help them to meet their potential, mobile phone masts, in all their guises, will help ensure the connectivity that creates the foundations for smart and sustainable cities. 

However, existing telecoms infrastructure is already under pressure from demand, data traffic and network traffic density – notably in western Europe and particularly in urban areas. 5G-led services will surely drive a need for even more coverage and capacity. Adding macro towers won’t be the answer. 5G technology requires even denser infrastructure, led by small cells, something that is already starting to happen. But can operators afford such an investment? 

We believe they can over the long term, but some form of sharing, combined with more progressive regulatory decision-making, is required to make it both affordable and timely to deliver the services desired. 

The sharing is already underway and will, over time, be driven by neutral hosts: companies that invest in telecommunications infrastructures such as cell towers, real estate and fibre-optic networks, and lease it to multiple service providers on a shared-tenant basis. This is becoming an attractive method of cutting costs, and preferable to the old, increasingly untenable model of one operator for one set of infrastructure. 

Soon more ambitious practices – like sharing fibre, cloud systems, and even the RAN – may also be considered. In the here and now, however, tower sharing makes sense, and not just for the bottom line. A lot of towers and masts will be needed for 5G. If sharing means fewer towers, that is good for the environment, reducing clutter and power demands.  

However, not all authorities involved in guaranteeing siting permissions are onside with the idea of more sites, shared or not; some see operators as short-term providers of rental fees and taxes rather than the source of new business, jobs and services they could be.  

Operators can in fact play a role in helping cities and regions attract business and develop jobs and services – if the growth in required sites can be supported by siting approval that is faster and more predictable. 

The good news is that a number of progressive UK city authorities have recognised that connectivity can boost services (like health, tourism, parking and lighting, to name only four), attract enterprises and boost the economic fortunes of their communities, and have therefore been more open to tower and mast rollout.  

In fact, Real Wireless has been helping some of them – in cities like Belfast and Liverpool, – to understand the business case, models and planning required to realise such ambitions. And, like the 5G network operators already planning effective ways to deliver new services, we’d be happy to expand our coverage.  

This piece is based on a recent Real Wireless presentation to the UK’s Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS).