UK-headquartered Dense Air plans to use its recently acquired licences for 5G spectrum in Australi to primarily deliver services to complement the networks of Australia’s existing mobile operators, with the company viewing carriers as its key customers rather than competitors.
Chief executive officer Paul Senior told Computerworld that Dense Air’s aim is to “densify mobile networks” by offering additional capacity in highly populated areas and infill in cell-edge locations, with mobile network operators expected to be its lead customers when it launches commercial services.
“We specialise in putting small cells in the places where there’s gaps, or holes if you like, in the macrocell mobile networks,” Senior said.
“If you put a small cell inside someone’s office or inside someone’s home, they get a really, really good service because they’re very close to that small cell — so their performance, their quality of experience of that mobile service can be dramatically better. Especially if it’s a location that’s at the edge of coverage of the mobile network.”
The Dense Air business model is “non-traditional” and a “very, very different model,” the CEO acknowledged.
Although the fixed line market has a variety of wholesale operators and service providers that use wholesale networks, “those concepts never really existed in mobile” in the same way, he said. “But in many ways, that’s what we’re trying to do — basically be a wholesale mobile provider, a carrier of carriers if you like, and our service is to offer coverage and capacity infill,” the CEO said.
“We think we can do that in a way where our economics are much better than the carriers doing it themselves. It’s pretty novel – we’re not a mass commercial service in any of the five countries we’ve already acquired spectrum, but we believe we can be successful.”
Senior expects Dense Air’s small cell infrastructure to be deployed in indoor locations in metro areas as well as outer metro areas where other coverage drops off.
While the primary target market is carriers, in other cases organisations may approach Dense Air to have it roll out a private 5G network, the CEO said.
All the infrastructure the company deploys is done on a neutral host basis, so it’s capable of supporting multiple networks at the same time. Senior gave as a hypothetical example of a non-telco customer a hospital that wanted to roll out a private 5G network to connect mobile-device-equipped doctors and nurses.
Using network segmentation, that same small cell infrastructure could be utilised by mobile carriers to deliver 5G services to customers who are patients.
“We would be able to segment that network so there is a private network in the hospital and also there were improvements in the performance of 5G networks for the mobile carriers, because obviously we’d got inside the hospital,” the CEO said.
“There is a market out there today – it’s not very well served – for private networks,” he added. “It could even be for industrial manufacturing plants and that kind of thing.”
While customer requests may drive the roll out of some infrastructure in Australia, in most cases it will be data-driven, Senior said. The company has access to anonymous mobile network performance data collected, with user consent, from some smartphone apps.
“We use that information to basically characterise the performance of a mobile network on a building-by-building basis, literally at that level, and that then tells us where our solution is useful or not,” the CEO said.
“We don’t try and overbuild, we’re not trying to compete with the mobile operators — we just are like little islands of coverage.”
Before the company acquired spectrum in the auction run by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, it analysed the Australian mobile market to assess whether there was an opportunity here for it.
“So for example, we don’t go to places like South Korea or Japan because, those networks are unbelievably pervasive already,” Senior said.
The company holds spectrum in Ireland, Belgium, and Portugal. It also recently acquired spectrum in New Zealand.
“Those are markets where we feel could complement and bring something useful to the market,” Senior said.
Dense Air spent $18,492,000 for licences 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.
“We would have loved to have bought more spectrum, but the auction was designed in a particular way; there was quite a lot of competition in some places, so we picked up what we could economically,” he said.
“The good news is 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, the CEO said. “But they’re going to come back big time for 5G,” he argued.
“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 macro cell 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. “So it’s not just that 5 meg – we’ve got 20, 40, 60, 80MHz in 5GHz that we tap into as well,” he said.
Ahead of the auction the company had no engagement with local mobile network operators, Senior said.
“It was all done in secret to this point,” he said. “In the next months, you’ll start to see us explain our business model in the market, start to engage. A lot of people don’t understand what we’re doing; a lot of people want to make sure what we do is not going to compete with them.”
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 are completely proven in other network and 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 use it – 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 licences 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.