The heightening indoor coverage crisis – who, what and how can we combat it?

By John Lillistone, Head of Capacity & Coverage Products at Arqiva

According to an often quoted stat from Informa, approximately 80% of mobile calls are now made from inside a building. As the UK 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% 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 Ofcom last year found that over half of the UK population had reported issues with voice and data services when making calls indoors. [Source: Ofcom]

With the economic effect of such lacklustre indoor coverage impacting both businesses working within buildings, and subsequently those building and facilities managers trying to lure top companies into their office space, indoor mobile coverage is already a very real and increasing problem. Combine this with the UK’s battle to become a leader of the 5G connected world and you find us hurtling towards an uncertain future.

So how might 5G intensify indoor mobile coverage issues, who is responsible for solving them, and have we moved any closer to a solution with recent developments like MuLTEfire and spectrum sharing?

Complex arrangements

The key to effective indoor mobile coverage and capacity is far-travelling, uninterrupted signal – something modern building materials, such as metalised insulation, steel frames and treated glass, already do their best to block. Considering the types of ultra-high speed, 300GB per second services which have been talked about for 5G however, the situation is soon set to get far more complex.

Operating at very high frequencies (i.e. 28 GHz), 5G’s signal range will be extremely 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.

Against this worrying backdrop, we could be looking at taking a lot more calls outside in the future – but who should we be turning to in order to avoid such potentially costly “call out” charges?

Insider networking

The answer to solving indoor mobile coverage seems simple enough – to put the network into buildings via Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) – thereby providing consistent, unencumbered signal to those inside.

And indeed thanks to recent developments such as the use of small cells, and innovations which now enable the systems to run off the existing connectivity infrastructure (via Ethernet if not fibre), and to be used for other services (i.e. PMR), modern DAS solutions have become less expensive, easier to use and more cost effective.

But while this should have made the business case for in-building solutions far easier, the industry – or more specifically the operators – still seems to be holding itself back.

Compromised ownership

To understand the delayed uptake of in-building solutions, you only need to look at the business case the UK’s operators are currently faced with – pushed year on year to both deliver more to their customers while at the same time having to continually reduce their prices. Already up against it, the option of operators funding in-building solutions is simply no longer viable.

There have been suggested ways to lessen the cost for operators – including through the use of shared spectrum or a Multi-Operator Shared Network (MOCN). But while these are great in theory, both unfortunately require the collaboration of all the MNOs – something that, at least in the UK, shows no sign of being likely to happen.

Meanwhile technologies such as MuLTEfire and other unlicensed solutions like LAA, which have also been heralded as possible fixes, face obstacles of a different kind. For a start, any solution proposing the use of unlicensed spectrum will always be subject to potential interference from other devices operating in that spectrum and there is no way for businesses to control what those devices are – just think about how many WiFi networks you see wherever you go. MuLTEfire might be interesting from the perspective that it could work on either licenced or unlicensed spectrum, but it would still face issues with both. Unlicensed spectrum use would run into the same problems as above, while the use of licensed spectrum would require it being made available and for the owner to adopt MuLTEfire. Finally, all of these solutions would also need support in the handsets.

While none of the above barriers are ones that can’t be overcome, with no movement expected anytime soon, the industry needs to look elsewhere for a more immediate solve to the issue of in-building solution ownership.

In which case the costs have to be borne by the building owners, the individual tenant (provided the appropriate permissions have been sought), or – as is being seen in a number of recent examples – by a mixture of the two. This typically involves the builders paying for the design and build of the in-building solution, but then the resident business paying for the maintenance (a fraction of the original expenditure). A good compromise!

So where do we go next?

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 it is growing increasingly essential and someone needs to step up. 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.

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