5G could heighten the indoor coverage crisis – how can we combat it?

According to an often quoted stat from the analyst group Informa, approximately 80 per cent of mobile phone calls are now made from inside a building. As the UK increasingly moves towards being a nation of urban dwellers, this figure is perhaps not surprising – and indeed, factoring in the continuous increase in the use of mobile devices in the workplace – research from Aruba HPE found that 60 per cent of employees link mobile technology with the ability to be productive at work – it could well be set to go even higher. 

In the face of such statistics the assumption might be that the UK would boast strong indoor coverage, however a report by communications regulator Ofcom last year found quite the opposite. In-fact, according to Ofcom over half of the UK population had reported issues with voice and data services when making calls indoors. 

Make no mistake, indoor mobile coverage is a very real and increasing problem. Combine this with the UK’s battle to become a leader of the 5G connected world – most recently evidenced by the £1 billion investment in full-fibre broadband and trialling 5G networks announced in the Autumn Statement – and you find us hurtling towards an uncertain future. 

So what is currently impeding indoor mobile coverage, and how might 5G intensify it?  

Complex arrangements 

The key to effective indoor mobile coverage and capacity is far-travelling, uninterrupted signal. Filled with materials that act as radio signal barriers i.e. metallised insulation, steel frames, treated glass, modern buildings are already doing their best to block this, but 5G is set to make the situation far more complex due to its high frequency transmission.

In general terms, the higher the mobile communications frequency, the shorter the range. The types of ultra-high speed, 300GB per second services that have been talked about for 5G will need to operate on very high frequencies i.e. 28 GHz. 

At such frequencies, the signal range will be very short, meaning it will be more easily interrupted by even the most common building materials – simple walls will be a problem, let alone the more modern materials discussed above. 

Costly “call out” charges

Whether or not 5G intensifies the issue, the economic effect of lacklustre indoor coverage is twofold – impacting businesses working within buildings, but also those building and facilities managers who are trying to lure top companies into their office space.

As mentioned previously, businesses are increasingly relying on mobile devices to keep their employees as efficient and productive as possible, and as such, the quality of mobile coverage in a building is becoming a key factor in their choice of where to rent. So much so, in fact, companies like WiredScore now exist to evaluate and certify the quality of digital connectivity infrastructure in commercial buildings. 

Essentially, mobile coverage has become a fifth utility, as much an expected necessity as gas, water, electricity, and broadband. The challenge therefore of attracting and retaining the best clients is made much more difficult when you’re telling them that they have to go outside to make and receive important mobile calls.  

So how can you solve indoor mobile coverage woes to keep businesses and tenants happy? 

Insider networking

The answer is to put the network into buildings via in-building solutions – providing consistent, unencumbered signal to those inside. That, however doesn’t come without its own problems – three of which include cost, host ownership and value:  

  • Traditionally this solution has been incredibly expensive and disruptive, requiring specialist cabling and equipment
  • There has also been the perception that those providing a mobile network in their building should be able to expect a rent from it – not an easy business case to make for operators these days and therefore a pretty low priority for those operators
  • With most buildings nowadays being multiple use and multiple occupancy, those considering in-building solutions also have the challenge of making them host-neutral. Ideally you only want to put a network into a building once, and therefore what you put in has to be capable of supporting all of the mobile operators – who thanks BYOD are more and frequently all found on the same floor

The ideal solution is having one set of infrastructure to support all operators – and for that people have looked to Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS).  

The case for DAS

While today’s modern DAS solutions solve many of the above issues – no longer requiring special cable types, running off a building’s existing in-built connectivity infrastructure (via Ethernet if not fibre), and being capable of use for other services (i.e. PMR) versus older solutions – the traditional design still requires that the operator provide a full-size onsite base station with a dedicated connectivity link back to their core network. This represents a significant investment from the operator both to pay for the station, but also set up and operate the link. 

One of the solutions around this is to use small cells, which are not only significantly cheaper than a full-size mobile base station, but – most importantly – can operate over the internet, meaning that they do not require any kind of dedicated link.

With such developments bringing down costs and simplifying and improving the solutions, the modern DAS sell to operators is becoming far less tricky – and yet despite this, the industry still seems to be holding itself back.

As we look to the future, is that something we can afford to do? 

A future-proof solution 

Though 5G technology has been heralded as both evolutionary and revolutionary, the escalated pressure of 5G connectivity is still a while off. Indeed, at Arqiva we are predicting the availability of commercial services no earlier than 2020. 

In-building solutions cannot wait that long however. Across the UK’s major urban cities – including London, Manchester and Birmingham – the problem exists now. In the face of ever-growing demand, mobile capacity is already stressed and alternative solutions such as voice-over WiFi technology do not offer a realistic, or long-term solve – requiring the latest handsets and individual MNO cooperation.  

Indoor coverage may be difficult to prioritise for MNOs but is it growing increasingly essential. Though retrofitting is possible, the industry needs to start incorporating in-building solutions into the fabric of new developments now. 

We can see where mobile coverage is going, and what infrastructure will be needed to match demand. The good news is that today’s solutions will work tomorrow. They can be built upon as demand increases, and will last a long time, ensuring a great level of mobile service for the lifetime of a building of the future.

John Lillistone, Head of Products and Coverage at Arqiva
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