City connectivity: could frustrations with network congestion be a thing of the past?

In densely populated UK cities, millions of consumers and businesses are unknowingly battling to get online using the same limited spectrum. And, while most are satisfied at present, mobile services will soon decline if we don’t address the growing strain on networks with the growing appetite for data-heavy services.

5G is potentially due to arrive by 2020, and with the demand for mobile data still rising rapidly, our industry is under mounting pressure to keep people connected. This pressure is undoubtedly at its most intense in cities, where more than 90 per cent of people in the UK live[1].

In densely populated cities like London, Manchester and Birmingham, millions of consumers and businesses are unknowingly battling to get online using the same limited spectrum. And, while most are satisfied at present, mobile services will soon decline if we don’t address the growing strain on networks with the growing appetite for data-heavy services.

What’s the problem?

Eighty-five per cent of UK adults now own or have ready access to a smartphone – up from 52 per cent in 2012[2]. It’s not necessarily that they have these devices, though, it’s what they’re doing with them. Despite communication still being the main mobile function, video accounted for 60 per cent of global mobile traffic in 2016, and it’s predicted to reach 78 per cent by 2021[3]. Services like Netflix and YouTube are finding ways to compress files, but such substantial increases in streaming activity are difficult to counteract.

As we move forward into the 5G era, mobile connectivity speeds are expected to rise at least fivefold, opening the doors for new data-heavy applications such as video and augmented reality (AR).  What’s more, over a quarter of households in London now don’t have a fixed broadband connection, a figure which is gradually creeping up.  Instead they are using mobile services as a substitute for fixed broadband. 

Furthermore, for businesses, increasingly dependent on data and the speed at which it moves from one point to the next, the availability of a reliable means of connectivity is hugely important. Files are getting bigger. The quality and quantity of the content we consume is growing quickly, and the data we keep contains more detail than ever before.

And the congestion problem is unsurprisingly acute in cities with 99% of highly utilised cell sites in major cities and transport routes.  The pressure might be big now, but it’s only getting bigger.

The consequences

The spectrum that is available is split between four major networks, and while all are managing to serve their expectant customers at present, some are in better positions than others. The shift towards unlimited data and zero rated services (e.g. streaming of Netflix, Amazon Prime etc) is helping operators keep customers on board, but the more these services are sold and the more heavily they’re used, the more strain the networks experience – and ultimately, that strain impacts the customer experience.

Optimising spectrum

Mobile services have come a long way since the 1980s, but each generational jump has been tiny compared to the one we’re about to make. 4G was an evolutionary upgrade from 3G; the radio interface changed, as did smartphones, but much of the architecture stayed the same. The 5G vision is much bigger, though.

So, instead of building more of the same as we’ve done in the past, we need to take a different approach, and there are a couple of options.

The first, and perhaps most obvious, would be for the network operators to buy more spectrum and add it to existing rooftop sites, but this route isn’t as simple as it first seems. Spectrum is limited, which means what is available is expensive.

This method may also not be optimal for the longer term.

A complementary solution, and by far the most effective in our eyes, is to enhance the current rooftop model to start making better use of the spectrum that operators already have. This would mean building small cell sites on the streets below, and even inside buildings, to provide additional capacity and coverage where and when it’s needed most.

The perfect blend of technologies

There’s no single technology that can fix the issue of urban network congestion. Instead, we must use the right balance of different solutions – each one carefully applied to the right situation. As well as the existing and new macro cells, there could be:

Outdoor small cells which can provide additional capacity in high demand areas such as shopping areas, business zones, urban hot spots and city centres.

Indoor small cells which can be used to boost capacity for workers and members of the public in large buildings, such as entertainment venues, office blocks, supermarkets, hospitals and transport hubs.

These indoor and outdoor small cells solutions must all be integrated in such a way as to allow it to work seamlessly, efficiently and sustainably.  As a result, mobile users benefit from a consistent and reliable service. With throughput set to increase so significantly, copper just won’t cut it anymore; what we really need is a strong and open fibre network that reaches the necessary locations, enabling us to deliver the capacity in a timely- and cost-efficient way.

A question of collaboration

For 4G to realise its full potential, and 5G to get the start we’re all hoping for, infrastructure providers like Arqiva, need to work closely with network operators, local authorities, the regulator, businesses and landlords as well as the Government to change the way coverage and capacity are delivered. When this happens, the UK will undoubtedly be in a much better position to call itself a true world leader in wireless connectivity benefiting sustainable economic development, improving business productivity and quality of life in today’s always-connected world.

This article first appeared in Information Age.

[1] Source: Guardian Datablog https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2009/aug/18/percentage-population-living-cities

[2] Source: UK Edition, Deloitte Global Mobile Consumer Survey May-Jun 2017Source: UK edition, Deloitte Global Mobile Consumer Survey, May-Jun 2012, May-Jun 2013, May-Jun 2014, May-Jun 2015, May-Jun 2016, May-Jun 2017Source: UK edition, Deloitte Global Mobile Consumer Survey, May-Jun 2012, May-Jun 2013, May-Jun 2014, May-Jun 2015, May-Jun 2016, May-Jun 2017Source: UK edition, Deloitte Global Mobile Consumer Survey, May-Jun 2012, May-Jun 2013, May-Jun 2014, May-Jun 2015, May-Jun 2016, May-Jun 2017

[3] Source:  http://www.emarketer.com/Chart/Mobile-App-Activities-Conducted-by-Smartphone-Users-Select-Countries-May-2017-of-respondents/210737

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