Bridging the cellular small cell coverage divide
Written by: James Atkinson | Published:

The newly launched Freshwave Group plans to solve indoor and outdoor cellular coverage issues by bringing together building owners, tenants, municipalities and mobile operators using new collaborative commercial models. James Atkinson talks to Simon Frumkin, CEO, to find out more.

You cannot get cellular coverage everywhere, all of the time. That is a fact that every mobile phone user knows all too well. For consumers, this ‘best effort’ service is just something they are largely resigned to dealing with. But for many organisations, lack of mobile coverage can be more than just frustrating, it can have a detrimental effect on the business.

Research conducted by analyst company CCS Insight on behalf of the Freshwave Group reveals the extent of the problem. CCS surveyed 500 senior business leaders of UK companies with 100500 employees in December 2019. Of these, 97 per cent reported mobile signal issues in their offices, with most acknowledging serious knock-on effects.

Some 72 per cent reported the negative effect it had on employees, including wasted productivity, lower morale and more complaints. Seventy per cent said they lost sales or were impacted by direct costs, and 52 per cent believed that client satisfaction suffered or that the business incurred reputational damage.

The three most common problems were: no coverage or a permanent signal dead zone in parts of the office (69 per cent); missed call notifications even when the mobile hasn’t rung (53 per cent); and dropped mobile phone calls (51 per cent).

Developers, building owners, tenants and municipalities want the indoor coverage issue solved, and most are willing to pay for the solution. According to CCS Insight, 39 per cent of those surveyed will invest to improve mobile signal in their offices in the next two years, while another 49 per cent are considering it.

The infrastructure side of the communications industry has played its part. Small cell vendors have developed multi-operator solutions, and these are widely available for both indoor and outdoor coverage.

Slow development

But the market has been frustratingly slow to take off. Mobile network operators do not have the RF design and engineering resource to sort out coverage in thousands of buildings, or a workable mechanism to bring together all four UK operators, real estate providers, local and central government.

The Freshwave Group, which launched on 28 January 2020, thinks it has found a way to bridge the divide and clear the logjam. It already supports over 5,000 mast locations, more than 2,000 connected buildings and over 200 outdoor networks. Customers include Workspace Group, several central London boroughs and London Docklands.

So, why does it think it can solve the small cell coverage conundrum? Simon Frumkin, CEO of the Freshwave Group, and previously head of EE’s ESN Division, says: “I don’t think anyone else is doing what we are doing in the way we are doing it. I think we are different in three ways. First, we have adopted an extremely collaborative commercial approach with local authorities, the real estate industry and MNOs. My experience of 20 years’ working in mobile network operators is that we have struggled to find a supply chain that could collaborate across all these parties. Local authorities and businesses want better connectivity. MNOs want more capacity. If you can bring them together and everyone contributes, then that can bring value to all.”

Technical expertise

The second difference, according to Frumkin, “is the very high level of technical expertise” the company has in-house. The Freshwave Group is made up of three companies: iWireless Solutions; StrattoOpencell; and Spyder Facilities.

iWireless Solutions designs, deploys, operates and maintains networks in densely populated areas. It deploys multi-operator, multi-technology, 5G-ready infrastructure to enable wireless connectivity (5G, 4G, IoT, Wi-Fi).

StrattoOpencell is an indoor mobile signal service provider. It designs and implements 3G/4G indoor coverage services backed up by a 24/7 monitoring platform and a specialist engineering team. Like a utility, it bills customers on a monthly basis.

Spyder Facilities works with property owners and network operators to provide rooftop and ground-based mast solutions. It offers all wireless technologies including mobile, Wi-Fi, mobile broadband and microwave links.

“Our third main difference is the resource of our shareholder,” continues Frumkin. “We can access significant capital from Digital Bridge and Digital Colony.” Digital Colony is a global investment firm specialising in digital infrastructure. Digital Bridge is the US equivalent of the Freshwave Group in the UK.

Frumkin boils down the key challenges in the connectivity space as being speed and cost. How to speed up the deployment process, how to reduce the cost of implementation, and how to keep bills at a sensible price that customers are happy to pay. But there are considerable obstacles still.

“The planning environment is challenging, site acquisition is difficult and the relationships between landowners and site providers are historically not great,” observes Frumkin. “This can be improved, but it requires the right mindset. Central government and local authorities can help, and the latter are very keen to encourage deployment of mobile infrastructure.”

Collaborative effort

“There is a win-win-win across the multiple stakeholders in this ecosystem, but the aggressive, self-interested approach of the past is not the way to do it,” Frumkin says firmly. “Often, the most productive and quickest way to get things done is to get everyone together, understand what they want to achieve, and come up with a solution that meets everyone’s requirements.”

In this spirit, Frumkin adds that the three Freshwave companies are increasingly working together as one team. “There are a lot of scenarios where both an indoor and an outdoor solution is required, as the same stakeholder needs both coverage solutions.”

At its simplest, Freshwave will put in a small cell system for a tenant on one or two floors. “For bigger transactions we deal with the developer even during the construction phase and then with the tenants afterwards. Everyone contributes to the commercial model based on the benefit they get. There are a lot of commercial permutations where the owner, the management company and the tenant might pay,” explains Frumkin.

He says that a very high proportion of businesses are prepared to invest in a coverage solution, and they want a multi-operator/neutral host solution. “Even a large corporate with a deal with one MNO still wants a multi-operator solution, as many staff bring in their own devices. They also want to provide visitors, cleaners and contractors with connectivity and so on.”

In general, the Freshwave Group will invest in the solution, designing and implementing the system and then owning and operating the infrastructure. It deals with the MNOs and looks after the hand-back of the transmissions to the MNOs’ radio access networks. Having good relationships with the UK’s four MNOs is a key part of its offering.

Outdoor solutions

When it comes to outdoor coverage solutions, the mobile network operators are the customer. Frumkin says that ideally, if the same infrastructure can be shared between all four operators then the economics are better for everyone.

“There has not been much outdoor small cell implementation yet, because the MNOs hold the majority of the licensed spectrum, but as 5G comes in, outdoor small cell deployment will be very important,” says Frumkin. “At the moment, 4G is the key technology and we think enhancing outdoor 4G coverage is a very relevant goal, but we will futureproof our sites to ensure they are 5G-ready.”

The Freshwave Group is not looking to solve rural mobile connectivity issues, but Frumkin reveals that it is trialling a proof of concept that could be used in rural areas at the moment. “It is quite niche, but interesting. We are looking at a private LTE model in very remote places where the operators are unlikely to deploy their networks. That allows us to provide coverage in places like caravan parks. But we are not looking to compete with the MNOs. We focus on specific mobile access challenges for businesses and MNOs.”

If the Freshwave Group is successful, we might finally see the indoor and outdoor mobile coverage logjam begin to move. “We believe it is a really exciting opportunity, and all the people in the business feel this opportunity,” says Frumkin.

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