The challenge of indoor enterprise connectivity is well-rehearsed. Not long ago a service-based industry like a hotel based its reputation on how well its staff performed and the quality of the accommodation on offer. Now reliable connectivity is part of that reputation.
If a business or landlord can’t guarantee robust, high-quality coverage, tenants, customers, temp staff and others will take their business elsewhere.
It’s no secret that, historically, MNOs haven’t really done much to address enterprise connectivity. Once cellular networks moved into higher spectrum bands with 3G, indoor penetration from macro cells was defeated by physics. Over time, the situation further deteriorated, with improved building insulation causing still more challenges for the outdoor-in approach, while user demand became, well, more demanding in terms of the scale, volume and expectations.
For MNOs, there has been little or no business case for improving indoor coverage on a per building basis – even, in most cases, when the owners are prepared to pay for the privilege. Hence the proliferation of enterprise Wi-Fi.
So far, so familiar. But recently getting indoor cellular coverage sorted has started to move up the agenda again. Not just in the context of hospitality and offices – which is attracting the interest of neutral host players like Crown Castle and Freshwave – but rather in the delivery of industrial connectivity, IoT and smart retail.
And existing options are evolving to take up the challenge. Classical DAS remains expensive and takes up a lot of space, but newer, cheaper forms of DAS are now available, making it a much more viable option, although right now the 5G roadmap for DAS might be somewhat tentative.
Similarly, current flavours of Wi-Fi can have significant shortcomings on the QoS front, especially when you’re in a crowded stadium or mall and everyone’s on Wi-Fi. But with Wi-Fi 6 certification having kicked off last autumn, Wi-Fi may well have stepped up to meet more demanding use cases, with significantly improved data speeds and better performance in crowded spaces. But where Wi-Fi is still likely to flounder is on the mobility front. Yes, Wi-Fi 6 boasts improved handover but no one is promising the seamlessness of cellular performance.
Real Wireless is looking forward to leveraging its in-building wireless experience in stadiums, malls, industrial sites and other challenging environments to help shape the service portfolios of neutral hosts offering coverage-as-a-service offerings to specific verticals.
The extent to which reliable indoor cellular coverage is important to Industry 4.0 is evident from recent moves in China where the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has granted new licenses for MNOs to share spectrum for 5G indoor coverage.
China Telecom, China Unicom and China Broadcasting Network will share the 3.3-3.4 GHz spectrum to allow them to leverage the ‘co-development and sharing of 5G indoor access networks to cut costs and boost efficiency’. Given that in various combinations the three are already sharing various aspects of passive and active infrastructure, this is policy designed not just to speed 5G delivery indoors and out, but to strengthen the infrastructure for industrial expansion.
But, given that a significant proportion of the most touted 5G use cases are based on an expectation of indoor coverage, this is clearly an approach that regulators might want to consider elsewhere. Once again, we welcome the opportunity of working with governments and regulators to help forge progressive spectrum policy to support economic growth.