Smartphone and tablet usage is continuing on an impressive trajectory. More devices keep appearing, nipping at the heels of the market leaders, while useful software and tempting content swell the app stores.
All great stuff - unless perhaps you’re a mobile operator trying to keep services up and costs down, or a mobile user who has discovered what capacity crunch means.
Who dares, who wins?
However, that is per operator, and in competitive landscapes, multiple operators may put their antenna on an existing mast, or if local planning permission permits and needs demand it, put up their own cell towers. The problem is that a lack of in-country roaming capability between different operators means that a phone often sees a mobile network, but not always the one it is supposed to be subscribed to. All the subscriber can then do is make emergency calls.
Each operator assesses how many towers it needs and where to put them based on the terms of their license (usually there is a minimum geographic coverage obligation) and how much money they can make from the services they offer. When you add in the varying lifecycle stages of different wireless technologies - some mature and saturated, some emerging - it creates a complex challenge, and network coverage often comes down to balancing technologies, population densities and budgets.
The upshot is that in a country like the UK, while there are more than enough masts and antenna to theoretically provide complete national coverage several times over, the mobile operators have deployed networks that mostly, but irregularly, overlap, leaving coverage gaps. Total coverage for all handsets only exists in the ‘intersection' of all operators coverage maps (for those remembering their Venn diagrams). In research conducted in 2008 by Quocirca, a third of small and medium sized businesses (SMBs) said their employees struggle with mobile coverage at work, and almost half think that employees probably have coverage problems at home.
So what does RAN sharing do? It cuts down the number of masts and antenna required in total, allows the cost of deploying new masts to fill gaps to be shared, while the pooling across different technologies and operators extends the reach of each with a ‘union' of coverage maps. In effect "more with less", and will even allow some masts and antenna to be removed. It should mean operators engaged in RAN sharing can cut their costs, extend the coverage available to their subscribers and reduce the environmental impact - in both planning and energy terms - of their network of masts.
There are implications of course. The backhaul connectivity will need some augmenting with increased capacity, and rival operators will need to ensure they can separate the traffic and customers - this is after all not a business merger, but a sharing of certain defined physical and virtual assets.
It is also a very significant shift in emphasis, which should benefit all subscribers, and not just because of improvements in coverage and less cluttered views across the countryside. For too long operators have focussed on the wires, base-stations, masts and antenna as being their most important assets when in reality they are simply basic requirements and the network itself is not a differentiator.
The most valuable asset operators have is their subscribers and the business opportunity to be able to offer network aware services to them. Mobile operators are now showing signs of starting to recognise this, and treat their networks as the utilities they really are. This does not mean that the mobile operators have to become a simple ‘bit pipe', but that they have to recognise the difference between the value of the plumbing and the services it is used to deliver.
As this shift in emphasis continues, businesses should see more sophisticated mobile service propositions as well as improvements in coverage and pricing. RAN sharing should not only deliver a ‘win-win' for the operators concerned, but their customers as well.