Ever wonder why the mobile service in your office isn’t better? 

Sure, the largest buildings – sports stadiums, for example – get mobile networks inside from all the operators, using consolidated space for their radios and Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS). But they’re too massive and expensive for the average office space. 

That said, advancements in networking equipment could improve the situation. A few years ago, mobile network radio manufacturers began making low-power versions of cell-tower base stations that were aimed at the kind of large and medium-sized buildings where wireless signals tend to be at their worst. The initial versions of these “small cells” from vendors like Huawei, Ericson and SpiderCloud were designed to be deployed by and for a single operator. So for years, although they saw a degree of market momentum, they also encountered a major hurdle.  Unless you and all of your co-workers get cell service from the same operator, a coverage solution deployed to support only one wouldn’t do everyone much good.  

More recently, though, things have begun to change.  

Late last year, Huawei announced a new version of its enterprise small-cell solution capable of supporting multiple operators. This summer, Ericsson followed suit with a multi-operator version of its own gear. With every major networking vendor offering a product in this space, additional companies may soon be pressured to do the same. 

What’s more, disruptive technologies and business models may provoke further change. In September, a startup called ASOCS unveiled a new alternative to DAS using cheap, commoditised cloud computing gear to dramatically lower its costs. In theory, similar approaches could make multi-operator radio equipment more cost-effective for a wide variety of buildings, not just those with stadium-size scale. In addition, vendors have already begun touting small cells designed to allow multiple operators to share equipment and radio frequencies in a unique model called Citizens Broadband Radio Service primed to take root in the US in 2018. 

Great, problem solved. Right? 

Not so fast. It’s important to note that these multi-operator small cells may well run into business model obstacles. For starters, it may not be easy to get hyper-competitive operators to agree to share the same equipment. And where the model requires the enterprise customer to own and manage the gear, operators may be uncomfortable with that as well. In fact, Nokia announced multi-operator capabilities in its enterprise small-cell solution as far back as 2014, and the vendor never claimed that it ended up changing the world as a result. 

The bottom line is that simply putting multi-operator networking gear on the market, alone, won’t topple longstanding barriers to better indoor coverage. But vendors investing in these products, using a variety of different approaches, signals another step toward resolving the business-model issues that could make all the difference. 

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