Hybrid networks – Joining the dots

Hybrid networks at SCWS

Hybrid mobile networks can mean different things to different people. Whenever someone mentions hybrid networks to me, I always think of islands of private mobile networks being linked together by slices in public networks – a joining-the-dots type of picture. 

At this year’s Small Cells World Summit, I was pleased to chair a panel discussion on hybrid networks or more specifically, “The role of hybrid networks in delivering a sustainable model”. I was joined in this discussion by Bart Giordano of CommScope, David O’Byrne of Druid, Neil Winrow of EdgeQ, and Andy McKinnon of Ontix.   

We kept the scope to hybrid networks, in terms of cellular private-to-public network interactions with some integration with Wi-Fi being important too – as described by Bart Giordano. 

The first question was – what is it that we are looking for hybrid networks to deliver a sustainable model for? On this, we converged on two problem spaces: 

  1. Connecting islands of private networks together via public cellular – for example, a smart ambulance on a hospital’s private campus network, then roaming onto the public network but still requiring guaranteed service levels when off the hospital site. 
  1. Extending the reach of MNO services into areas that are not commercially viable for them – for example, linking inbuilding systems provided by a neutral host or property owner to the public cellular networks outdoors or not spot villages deploying their own private network. 

Our discussions explored whether there is a role for organisations, like Small Cell Forum, to define the interfaces and roaming between networks in these cases and the role of initiatives like JOTS and NHIB. But these discussions kept leading back to the fact that roaming and interactions between networks are either already operating or are being defined at a technical level by groups like 3GPP. In fact, rather than the technology being the issue, we kept coming back to the question of “who pays” in these shared cost-shared, shared benefits. 

Linking in nicely with our panel session were presentations from Dr. Marika Livari of Imperial College, Jenny Obee of Argent Property Developers, and Patrick Bradd of Ontix who shared their perspectives on the difficulties of quantifying the value of connectivity and the challenges in finding ways to share costs and investment as wireless infrastructure delivery changes to include many more stakeholders. 

They emphasized the view that bringing stakeholders together is a fundamental necessity. So perhaps the key to hybrid networks is not just about joining islands of private networks but also about joining people, organisations, and most importantly funding sources.   

Jenny described very nicely how the case for investing in in-building systems is extremely clear-cut in high-rental areas such as central London. But moving to other areas with lower rents, the case for property owners taking on the full risk and cost of in-building systems, albeit financed over a long time by neutral hosts, is less clear cut.   

Add to this the fact that major new building developments can have a huge impact on the physical environment of existing mobile outdoor networks, impacting coverage. They can also dramatically increase the volume of users and traffic that outdoor networks need to serve, impacting capacity.  

Unfortunately, this kind of impact on the outdoor mobile network is usually not noticed until the buildings are open for service – long after the paving slabs of the new public realm areas have already been laid and the opportunity to build wireless into the development has been missed. This means that retrospective and costly rework to the existing mobile network infrastructure in that area needs to be considered and of course, at this point, the debate over who should fund this rework begins. 

An evitable tension arises between the property developer and mobile network operators in this situation. One view is that it’s the MNOs’ job to provide connectivity so they should pay for any network improvements. The other view is that the property developer has caused the problem and needs to fund solutions. But what if situations like this could be avoided? What if connectivity was considered when the buildings and public realm redevelopments were still on the drawing board and the infrastructure for connectivity could be built in? 

This sounds idealistic but is what happened at Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium. They engaged Real Wireless early in the process and our Head of Wireless in Built Environments, Scott Kelton, worked with the architects and developers to ensure that connectivity was very literally built into the stadium. What’s the result? One of the world’s most connected stadiums now delivers a fantastic experience to spectators without any equipment in sight. 

But that was a premier league football club – can we expect property developers to take on the costs of planning and executing a connectivity strategy for the areas that they are building in, particularly when these include the public realm? In times past we would say, probably not, but with a greater appreciation of the importance that connectivity plays in today’s society we suggest that forward thinking developers should, at the very least, have a plausible connectivity strategy in place that is appropriate for the type of developments they undertake.  Such a strategy will help create the foundations for a better understanding of how the shared benefits and costs of hybrid networks, between developers, tenants and mobile operators, are going to pan out.  

So how do we unblock this? I can’t help but wonder if there is a role for publicly funded redevelopment projects to lead by example here. 

Jenny Obee’s closing remark during her panel discussion for me brought into focus the next steps.  She pointed out that we all want the same thing in these situations – property developers, the local council, neutral hosts, wireless equipment vendors, mobile network operators – it‘s in all of our interests to ensure that people living in, working in, visiting or simply passing through a new development, experience good connectivity. We all need to figure out a way to work together and share the risks and costs involved. By doing this we’ll certainly all enjoy the benefits – or in other words, we just need to figure out how to join the dots.