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February 15, 2016updated 04 Sep 2016 10:18pm

Is it time for enterprises to start caring about mobile small cells?

C-level briefing: Nick Johnson of ip.access explains what is going to make this technology take off.

By Alexander Sword

It’s a surprisingly common experience, especially if you work in or inhabit a multi-storey building: descend in the lift to the lower floors and watch as the signal bar on your mobile phone descends from 4G, to 3G+, to H+ and eventually cuts out all together.

But it’s not just in workplaces or at home. Hospitality buildings such as hotels often suffer from woeful cellular coverage. It is beginning to take its toll on the customers’ experiences of places they visit, and hence the bottom line.

Many different solutions to the indoor coverage problem have been touted. One of the most regularly cited is increasing wi-fi coverage.

Combined with VoIP technology, phones will be able to send voice and other traffic over wireless networks as ordinary internet traffic, meaning that as long as a phone has VoIP then a cellular network won’t be needed to make a call.

Small cell technology, which boosts cellular networks, have been touted as another way of solving the indoor coverage problem, but the difficulties in finding a commercial model for rolling them out has been a dampner on progress.

Installing a miniature base station has a price, and someone is going to have to pay it. For the mobile operators, it is easier to switch most consumers over to wi-fi calling, a market in which if they are say Vodafone or EE they have a product already.

Most consumers, meanwhile, will be unwilling to pay the entire cost themselves. In addition, if the small cell needs to be installed in a place where different people will be served by different mobile operators, buying a cell that can only provide coverage for one of the mobile networks is not going to be particularly cost-effective.

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Nick Johnson, founder and CTO of ip.access, explains that there is a huge "middle-ground of enterprises that are under-served by mobile operators."

"Unless you’re a huge corporate, you don’t get that hearing by the operators, you just get treated as another consumer."

But it’s not just a problem for smaller companies. Johnson says that even huge hotel chains have problems getting better mobile coverage.

For example, the Marriott is apparently very vociferous at small cell conferences, criticising mobile coverage.

The break-out element of the company’s new small cell platform Viper is its agnosticism. It can boost mobile coverage from any major operator, meaning that buying one won’t tie you to a single one.

Johnson argues that the time has come for this emerging technology.

"Do people go to places because they offer good Vodafone coverage or because they offer good coverage in general?"

"There’s an awful lot of pent-up demand behind multi-operator coverage, which operators themselves are slow to recognise and slow to take advantage of. "

ip.access is providing some technology as part of the Viper package to allow them to exploit that gap in the market.

"In the end the spectrum has to come from a mobile operator but the service can be provided by any of them simultaneously."

The Viper platform can be deployed by mobile network operators, independent service companies or large enterprises themselves.

This not only incentivises the business to buy a small cell, but makes it a more attractive model for the mobile operators themselves. If they can build their own infrastructure into buildings, they will be in a position to control access for other providers, as Virgin Media is in the London Underground network.

What about the challenge from wi-fi? Johnson says that there are flaws with wi-fi that mean it cannot compete with cellular networks for convenience, coverage or speed.

For one thing, the spectrum band for wi-fi is crowded by the number of users. In addition, the authentication that a mobile network operator performs on the user of a device greatly increases the convenience for that user. There is no fiddling around with following companies on Facebook or asking around for a password.

Ultimately, ip.access expects the cost of cellular plans to fall to the extent that it will be viable to use the network all the time.

The multi-operator set-up might finally provide a hearing, then, for a technology that has been expected to arrive for a while.


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