Small Cells World Summit – an industry in transition

In terms of content and attendance, Small Cells World Summit 2019 was given a significant boost this year now that it’s run and programmed by Small Cell Forum. Real Wireless was all over it and CTO Simon Fletcher has this report.

I was both a judge at the SCF Small Cell Awards and part of a lively panel session that launched the conference and looked at the state of the small cell market and its implications for 5G and densification strategies.

If there was a single theme to emerge from what turned out to be a productive couple of days (a post event report and presentations can be found here), it was that there needs to be a better alignment between a growing diversity in demand for secure and reliable connectivity and a similar variety in available delivery mechanisms. Unsurprisingly, this mismatch led to a focus on the evolving role of neutral hosts and the growing importance of what the conference characterised as ‘disaggregated architectures’ (i.e., the move towards virtualised networks).

Neutral hosts cropped up all over the conference (as well as scooping many of the awards at the Tuesday night gala dinner). The arguments for neutral hosting are well rehearsed, and unsurprising given the direction we see the market moving today and into the 5G era. Clearly, mobile operators cannot cover every location and use case, nor is it profitable for them to do so – this is where neutral hosts and private network operators can step in and fill those gaps, particularly in mission critical use cases, such as healthcare and emergency services, and in the enterprises.

This scenario is starting to drive the adoption of new industrial and IoT applications, as was demonstrated in several use cases presented during SCWS. Similarly, specialist system integrators are using private networks to address high-value, mission critical cases.

What was notable at this event was not so much the various ways in which the case for neutral hosting was being made, but the extent to which the arguments have moved from beneath the radar and into the mainstream.

But getting neutral host solutions up and running is easier said than done – not least because most models imply levels of collaboration the industry has yet to get to grips with. As many delegates and speakers highlighted, neutral host solutions involve high levels of cooperation between various stakeholders including MNOs and the enterprises themselves to deliver a multi-operator platform that will perform.

The thrust of an interesting discussion of new network architectures was that network disaggregation was being driven by the need to foster a richer ecosystem to support both legacy and disruptive players. This will result in more flexible and agile networks and service creation. Virtualisation will then allow MNOs to leverage software-controlled networks for efficient and automated management, as well as introducing open source technologies.

However, some expressed concern that there were still too many options and that MNOs either didn’t know which one they wanted, or each wanted a different one. But perhaps the point here is that the right hardware platform should support all split options in software, to avoid the need to pick just one.

Continuing the discussions around the need for new models for service delivery, in a session on spectrum strategy we heard DCMS expressing concern over the lack of a secondary market for spectrum in the UK. Again, this came back to the neutral host conversation, because although the government may lose out on initial auction revenue, increased monetisation through leasing spectrum would increase the value of spectrum. It seems almost certain that 5G will be an opportunity to create a greater variety of spectrum holders, thereby allowing neutral hosts or private operators to run active equipment. No one disputes that until now licensing to only a few MNOs has led to a stable national voice and data network in many countries, however many agreed that a new model would be needed for next generation use cases and indoor networks.

It was great to hear about so many initial neutral host and private operator solutions already in action both in the UK and further afield during SCWS, and it was a pleasure to be involved in judging the SCF Small Cell Awards for the first time this year, where much of this innovation was showcased and rewarded at the annual gala evening.