Dark spots in emerging markets are no longer acceptable
Guest post from Gayan Koralage, EDOTCO
In this ever-digitalised, ubiquitously connected, on the go, world we live in, these situations could be familiar to some of us: whilst queuing for payment in a supermarket only to realise that the application is unable to load due to poor internet connection, causing disruption to cashless payment systems and impatient people behind you. Watching you are unable to connect to hailing app to get a cab home.
This common phenomenon is usually called “dark spots”, where network connectivity is unstable or unavailable, and this may cause inconveniences to general consumers in this digital age.
Dark spots are defined as areas where mobile signals cannot be detected due to various reasons, such as the unavailability of nearby transmitters or signal blockage due to physical elements. Darks spots are also not limited to rural areas, where it is generally known that telco towers are more sparsely built due to the low ARPU that each tower could generate for the MNOs. Contrary to popular belief, this could also occur in urban areas, where network capacity is unable to cater for all customers at high footfall areas.
Image 1: illustration of dark spots
The cost problem of MNOs can no longer be ignored – consumers have been demanding for ever greater capacity and speeds and expecting a competitive pricing of their mobile plans. The following new trends are expected to remain in the post-COVID19 world:
• ~40% increase in mobile data usage per capita.
• Gap of data usage of urban/suburban and rural areas have closed up.
• Peak hour usage has widened in both urban/suburban and rural areas. Off peak data usage has similarly experienced significant increase.
• Consumer demand for higher bandwidth due to usage of network in highly demanding services: video streaming and gaming.
• Increased importance of mobile networks due to its various use cases in IoT and Enterprises.
Image 2: Illustration of changes in consumer behavioural patterns, pre- and post-COVID eras.
In this day and age, the internet has gradually risen in importance to be a necessity for humans to live by, achieving similar statuses with other utilities such as clean water and electricity. There has been increasing number of governments declaring internet to be a basic human right and a utility, such as this case here in Malaysia.
By declaring that the internet is a basic human need and a utility, this allows for proper legislation and bylaws to be enacted to allow for internet and network services to be incorporated to any development and construction that takes place. Similarly where approvals would be required for electricity and water services before a building is operational, the same would be expected for internet and network services to be available before the building is operational. This would allow building owners to ensure that internet services are available at all parts within the building, including common dark spots such as basements and enclosed rooms, before opening for use.
2022 Number of Dark Spots
(#, <-100dBm signal strength )
Table 1: un and under connected population (available from GSMA Intelligence)
The telecommunications industry, including infrastructure and service providers, needs to work together for long term solution. There are generally 3 main solutions to resolving dark spots within the mobile network: increase number of cell tower structures; efficient spectrum allocation and increasing number of active equipment on every cell tower.
• Increasing number of cell tower structures
This solution would call for the continuation of collaboration between MNOs and infrastructure providers to work closer for cell towers rollout, as cell tower rollouts are CAPEX intensive for infrastructure providers and OPEX intensive for MNOs, a balance needs to be found for both parties to ensure the cost element is managed. The key benefit of this solution is the speed of cell tower rollouts – as this is already a BAU arrangement between MNOs and infrastructure providers, the only variable that may determine the speed of rollout would be the capacity of the infrastructure providers and the cooperation of all permitting parties involved.
• Efficient spectrum allocation
A combination of low and high frequency spectrum would also be key towards designing the ideal mobile network that balances speed and range. A more liberal usage of spectrum by the MNOs would also allow MNOs to transmit the right spectrum at the right location according to the needs and characteristics of the location. However, such spectrum allocation would usually be a long process, due to the extensive processes that most regulators have in allocating spectrum, which may include auctioning procedures and the actual allocation and activation of such spectrum, which may usually take up to a few years for each spectrum block.
• Increasing number of active equipment on every cell tower
As the key to increasing network capacity would be to have more active equipment on site, the MNOs would need to increase their equipment count on each site to ensure that network capacity is at its optimum. Increased usage of In-Building Solutions (IBS) would also be key to resolving network dark spots in enclosed building such as office towers and shopping mall. However, this solution may not be ideal for two reasons: increased equipment count still would not be able to resolve the issue of dark spots caused by range limitations and high-capacity active equipment are huge cost elements for MNOs, which may prefer to lower CAPEX expenditure in this current economic climate.
Hence the most straight forward and fastest solution to resolving the dark spots would be to build more cell towers to achieve site densification. However, industry players would need to be disciplined to ensure the cost structure for this is acceptable for all. 3 key elements need to take place to ensure such cost optimisation would take place even in the event of new cell tower rollouts:
• Minimal site duplication
Site duplication occurs when there are cell towers that are constructed within close proximity to each other, and when the space on such cell towers is not maximised. This may happen for various reasons, such as poor planning and loose regulation on tower sharing requirements. Mandating a tower sharing regulation, whereby cell towers are required to be shared with multiple operators would allow for the most efficient usage of resources and reducing cost for all parties involved. Local authorities and regulators need to realise the benefits of also keeping the number of cell towers to the optimum number to allow for proper city and network planning.
• Building at the right location
Proper site planning, with the help of geotagging tagging and network analytics, would allow MNOs and infrastructure providers to ensure the cell towers are built at locations that truly requires it. By combining network availability and cell tower availability, we would be able to have a network map on the service and capacity availability of each MNOs, and then would be able to propose the need of cell towers structures are targeted locations, hence reducing wastage of resources and maximising usage and APRU for each cell tower.
• Energy and operational efficiency
For sites that are not connected to the grid, energy efficiency is key to ensure energy costs are managed well. Traditional 2G and 4G systems consumes approx. 4-6 kW of power per tenant and 2G+4G+5G consume approx. 12 Kw per tenant. Small cell equipment, which are high powered miniaturised active antenna, may consume more energy due to its high frequency transmission. Renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, should be considered for its’ long-term energy savings potential. Maintenance of such cell sites would also be the key towards managing costs, preventive maintenance would allow for more structured servicing and improving network availability for the MNOs.
About the writer
Gayan Koralage is one of the pioneering members of edotco Group. He speaks and writes frequently as a thought leader in the mobile and neutral party host telecom tower industry, covering key topics of business case for 5G, network disruption, digital economy, digital transformation and inter-generation opportunities in the 2020 decade. Gayan currently serves as the Director, Group Strategy, responsible for long term strategy, pricing, and commercials for the group. And served additional interim roles of acting country managing director of Pakistan and Sr Lanka. He spearheaded the formation and growth of edotco since 2013 to be global top six tower company by count, currently presence in nine Asian markets.