Once upon a time, cell phones were for use exclusively inside cars – the first designs were wired into the car and took up space in the trunk. As technology improved, cell phones became smaller and smaller so that they were truly handheld. Then, with the introduction of the first smartphones, designs started to get bigger again as more functionality was added. Today, the ‘shiny glass block’ smartphone is truly a flexible communications, media and entertainment workhorse.
It is no surprise that consumers now want to use their smartphones wherever they are, not just in the car. This includes inside the home and in the workplace. While it may be surprising that employees want to use their personal smartphones at work, there are many valid reasons for this: accessing a bank account online, for example, without using the company Wi-Fi or monitoring a nanny-cam directly (the video from the nanny-cam may be blocked by a company firewall). People want 4G LTE in their workplaces today and the demand will only intensify once 5G comes along in a couple of years.
While it may seem simple for the mobile operators to build out cellular networks in buildings, that is not the case. The mobile operators own their networks (the antennas, radios and other equipment) but usually the cell towers are owned by third party companies. To add a cell site, the mobile operator usually leases space on a cell tower or roof top and installs the necessary equipment.
But in a building, the process is much more complex. In-building coverage has traditionally been provided with a Distributed Antenna System or DAS. The DAS ‘spreads’ the cell signal throughout the building to provide service to the building occupants. In the past, DAS was paid for and installed by the mobile operators, usually in large buildings or stadiums.
Consider the example of AT&T’s Antenna Solutions Group – ASG was principally responsible for driving DAS into many stadiums and large buildings – this group’s primary responsibility was to solve the indoor problem. Many of the installations were neutral host and so other operators were able to use the DAS as well, spreading the cost. ASG was disbanded in 2015 and the responsibility for DAS and small cells shifted to each of the AT&T regional RAN groups. This meant that the focus moved away from the indoor space. While the operators talked a lot about deploying small cells outdoors, progress has been slow, mainly due to problems with planning and zoning. Today, very few DAS projects are funded exclusively by the mobile operators.
This shift has left a gap in the market – the mobile operators are unable or unwilling to fund in-building solutions and the building owners see the demand from their occupants but do not have the expertise or resources. This gap is being filled by a new breed of their party providers who bring together the technology, mobile operator networks and building access into a new business structure.
For these new third party entities, as opposed to viewing the mobile operators as customers (trying to sell them equipment and technical solutions), the approach now is to view the operator as a partner or supplier and the enterprise as the customer. In this scenario, the operator supplies the licensed spectrum and connectivity to the rest of the network.
The mobile operators know there are significant advantages in this approach, aside from the reducing capital the operator must spend to get improve the indoor experience. Building a robust indoor or campus-level solution takes load off the macro network (the macro signal no longer has to serve those devices in the building) and hence improves the experience for all of the users in the area, not just those indoors. It is also important to realize that an enterprise may need LTE, an ultimately 5G, throughout its campus, covering many.
The end result is that mobile operators will lease space on third party networks, something that happens on a very limited basis today. For the last forty years, operators have built and operated their mobile networks – this is starting to change. And the change is happening in-building.
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