Mobile network operators must get coverage, capacity and customer experience spot on in order to succeed says Brian More O’Ferrall, MNO director and wholesale finance director at BT Wholesale
Mobile data is growing at a consistent rate of nearly 30 per cent each year. Some Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) even reported increases of up to 60 per cent on their networks during the height of the pandemic.
Given this growth, it’s perhaps unsurprising that there’s a demand for the provision of faster, lower latency services.
Meeting this demand requires MNOs to address the 3Cs of mobile service: coverage, capacity, and customer experience (CX). What, then, do they need to meet these evolving demands, particularly in terms of network infrastructure?
Delivering the 3Cs
The first of these 3Cs, coverage, is primarily concerned with expanding mobile services to very remote areas. 2G, 3G, and 4G networks typically cover more than 99 percent of the UK population in outdoor environments, and somewhere between 0.5 and 2.5 percent less in indoor environments. Great strides are being made with 5G too. EE, for instance, is aiming for over 50 percent population coverage by 2023 and over 90 percent landmass coverage by 2028.
Capacity, on the other hand, is about meeting growing data volumes, with different solutions required for different types of environments. Rural infrastructure, for instance, is different to that in an urban or indoor setting.
CX, which is slightly harder to define, recognises the importance of addressing the differing needs of customers and solutions. Getting CX right is critical – almost three quarters of consumers consider it to be an important factor when making purchasing decisions.
For MNOs, part of ensuring a good CX is understanding how technology can support new requirements. Indeed, most are looking toward converged fixed and mobile products to deliver better CX, with certain broadband routers providing redundant mobile connectivity access to keep users connected.
The rollout of 5G is only set to add to these demands. And although much of the data generated by 5G applications, particularly those that operate at the edge of the network, is likely to be stored and processed in public cloud environments, core infrastructure supported by fixed connectivity will still prove crucial in enabling MNOs to deliver on the 3Cs.
There are currently about 35,000 mobile macro sites in the UK, owned by the MNOs and by independent companies such as Cellnex and Wireless Infrastructure Group. Operated on a joint venture basis, most of these sites support more than one MNO’s network equipment.
Over the coming years, small cells will prove to be a growth area in the access network, providing infill capacity in traditionally high demand urban environments, as well as coverage in rural areas where network volumes will be lower. In fact, it’s reasonable to assume that there could be several tens of thousands of small cells in the UK within the next few years, both indoors and outdoors, and owned and operated by MNOs, third-party infrastructure providers, and enterprises.
All of these new mobile access points will require connectivity, and 5G requires new network topologies to fully leverage its low latency capabilities. Core networks are largely fibre-based, but these will continue to be upgraded to 10Gbps and well beyond that figure in some cases to support new demands.
Therefore, when it comes to addressing the 3Cs in terms of this mix of network infrastructure, there are three essential and interrelated building blocks that MNOs should consider.
Probably the most fundamental of these building blocks are the internationally recognised network standards – 2G, 3G, 4G, and 5G, and specialised networks such as NBIOT, the narrowband networks for M2M/IoT. Comprising multiple variants, these define service levels, standards, and more, and are continuously upgraded with every iterative ‘release’.
Then there’s the assignation of spectrum bands to MNOs. Ofcom holds regular auctions of new spectrum to boost mobile capacities and new networks, the most lucrative of which was the 3G auction at the height of the telecoms, media, and technology boom in 2000.
While less lucrative, subsequent auctions have been arguably more significant in terms of service. The most recent 5G spectrum auction in March 2021 raised £1.4bn and increased available spectrum by 18 percent.
Finally, there’s the physical infrastructure itself – the towers, rooftop aerials, indoor access points, and backhaul connectivity that comprise the access network, and the core/aggregation networks. Each deployment may require a different combination of solutions – it’s not a ‘one-size-fits-all’.
As mentioned, these three elements are interrelated. Spectrum availability drives the types of networks that can be provided, and this dictates the make-up of the access and core network infrastructure in turn.
With mobile data volumes continuing to rise, especially in light of the 5G rollout, and with new products and services continuing to hit the market, it’s vital that MNOs address the evolving demands of the 3Cs.
Paying close attention to the building blocks of network standards, spectrum availability, and network infrastructure, is key to enabling them to do so.