UK-headquartered Dense Air recently completed the acquisition of licences for 5G spectrum in Australia. This spectrum will be used to deliver services that complement the existing networks of Australian mobile network operators, with the company viewing these carriers as key customers rather than competitors.
Paul Senior, Chief Executive Officer of Dense Air, told Computerworld that Dense Air’s aim is to “densify mobile networks” by offering additional capacity in highly populated infill cell-edge locations.
“We specialise in putting small cells in the places where there are gaps in the macrocell mobile networks,” Senior said.
“If you put a small cell inside someone’s office or home, they will experience a better service due to their close proximity to the cell. This improved service is particularly evident at cell edge locations as this will dramatically improve a user’s mobile service thus improving their overall quality of experience”
Dense Air offers a wholesale business model which very different to traditional mobile network models. Although the fixed-line market has a variety of wholesale operators and service providers using a wholesale network model, Dense Air is the first in the mobile market to offer this structure.
Senior expects Dense Air’s small cell infrastructure to be deployed in indoor locations in metro areas as well as outer metro areas where coverage is poor.
While the primary target market for Dense Air is mobile carriers, the company also offers private 5G networks for enterprise customers. All the infrastructure deployed by Dense Air is a neutral host, capable of supporting multiple networks at the same time.
While customer requests may drive the rollout of some infrastructure in Australia, in most cases it will be data-driven. The company has access to anonymous mobile network performance data collected, with user consent, from some smartphone apps. “We use that information to characterise the performance of a mobile network on a building-by-building basis, and that then tells us where our solution is useful or not” the CEO said.
In addition to Australia, Dense Air has also acquired spectrum in Ireland, Belgium, and Portugal and most recently New Zealand. “Based on our data these are markets where we feel could complement and bring something useful to the market,” Senior said.
Dense Air spent $18,492,000 on licenses in the ACMA auction. It won six 5MHz lots in Adelaide, and seven in each of Brisbane, Canberra and Perth. The company only picked up a single 5MHz lot in each of Melbourne and Sydney. Despite that, Senior said the company expects to be able to successfully exploit the spectrum in the Victorian and NSW metro areas.
“Our solution comes in many shapes and forms – in a place if we can get 30 or 40MHz with 5G radios – even with that amount of spectrum it’s a gigabit service. Where we have only have a 5MHz asset, that tends to be more like a personal small cell.”
Femtocells that could be deployed in households or offices to deliver better mobile coverage gained popularity during the 3G era but never really took off with 4G networks, However, Senior argues that “they’re going to come back big time for 5G”.
“That’s basically something that you would put in your home to service yourself, to make sure that you have seamless 5G coverage at the right bit-rate. For a single user on a 5MHz channel, we’re talking 50, 60 megabits per second – you could guarantee that level of performance.
“If you were connected close to a macrocell, you will get many gigabits; but the truth is, most users sit inside. And if you’re at cell edge connecting to that macrocell at 3.6GHz you’ll find that a lot of time it’s not going to work.”
He said that Dense Air could also employ carrier aggregation with large channels in the 5GHz band on an unlicensed basis.
Dense Air is a subsidiary of Airspan, which has deployed hundreds of thousands of LTE small cells on behalf of mobile carriers, including India’s Reliance Jio and Sprint in the US. Senior said that Airspan’s mass production and deployment of small cells means the cost per cell for Dense Air will be very low.
“The technology building blocks of what we’re doing has been proven by other networks. What we’re doing here is turning them into to this concept of ‘neutral host’, which means you can put them anywhere and mobile operators can choose to use it or not– it’s their choice,” he said. “It enables them to economically fill holes in the network where if they just did it themselves it would be three or four times more expensive, and often the investment’s not worth it.”
The new licenses for the 3.6GHz spectrum don’t kick in until March 2020, although the ACMA said there will be arrangements for earlier access in some circumstances.
Dense Air expects to have early proof-of-concept projects stood up by around mid-2019 ahead of a 2020 launch — although Senior said that handset availability and the smartphone upgrade cycle meant that initially, 5G is likely to be a small market to sell into.