A lack of 4G coverage indoors could put critical communications in jeopardy, says Colin Abrey.
Good mobile connectivity is a number-one selling point for property owners. Real estate and leasing companies can get away with charging exorbitant rents, particularly in large, built-up areas, because tenants will not put up with a poor mobile signal at the top of a high-rise building.
But what if reliable indoor coverage was a matter of life and death? This could become a reality as the launch date for the UK's new Emergency Services Network (ESN) nears.
Poised to replace a legacy low-frequency Airwave network so our blue-light services can embrace AI-driven applications such as live video streaming, wearable tech or access control, the UK was on target to be one of the first countries globally to roll out a 4G LTE-based critical communications network. The project, however, is being hindered by infrastructure challenges and is at least three years behind schedule and millions of pounds over budget.
There is also the 5G question. Mission-critical communications demand ubiquitous coverage with sufficient data rates. To that end, the provision of reliable voice and data communications and the ability to deliver images and video to different locations are essential requirements.
4G is a mature network that can reliably satisfy these requirements now. 5G, on the other hand, is years away from going mainstream. Not only that - many 5G applications are machine-to-machine-based and not applicable in a public safety context.
Challenges to overcome
A big challenge has been to facilitate a reliable mobile communications infrastructure in the first place, particularly inside buildings, because materials such as iron and steel, metallised glass, reinforced concrete or foil-lined partitions affect radio signals in different ways. The higher frequency 4G signals can't penetrate these structures as well - if at all. Losing connectivity when responding to an emergency is unacceptable.
The way to overcome the problem is to bring the outside network inside using third-party boosters because mobile phone towers on their own are simply not up to the job.
Making use of such equipment hasn't been plain sailing because of resistance from different stakeholders, particularly MNOs that perceived they posed a threat to existing spectrum assets.
The situation had been exacerbated by regulation, which, until recently, made the use of supplementary technology such as mobile signal boosters illegal.
Positive change is coming
Luckily, this is no longer the case, owing to a relaxation in the mobile repeater laws by Ofcom in 2018. Property owners can now improve mobile coverage in their respective buildings using off-the-shelf signal boosters. The only caveat is that boosters must satisfy all technical requirements detailed by Ofcom in the IR2102 specification - but not many do. To be compliant, devices must be network-specific, network-safe and must not cause interference to any other networks.
The ESN project's overzealous goals have given building owners some welcome breathing space so they can take the necessary steps to make sure they are ESN-ready. Unlike its European counterparts, the UK Government is not offering any financial incentive to ensure reliable ESN in general mixed-use, residential or commercial buildings, leaving the moral dilemma regarding responsibility and culpability somewhat of a hot potato.
Most building owners will be unwilling to compromise personal safety and security, but the question remains as to how the mobile coverage quandary will be resolved in the longer term. Even though there are plans for portable coverage units to be made available, how effective will these be in practical terms and how will they be able to overcome the enduring indoor mobile coverage problem?
Colin Abrey is vice-president of channel sales at Nextivity