"A mobile signal is weaker by default inside any building, large or small, because raw materials like bricks, reinforced concrete, glass, iron girders, and insulating foam hamper the transmission of mobile phone signals."
Reliable indoor mobile coverage can ease home broadband capacity challenges during the pandemic, says Colin Abrey.
As enforced homeworking is likely to go on for weeks – possibly months – how is the UK’s predominantly copper-based home broadband network going to hold up?
Ofcom’s latest report shows that only 8 per cent of the population (three million homes) has access to full-fibre broadband. By contrast, almost 75 per cent of Spain’s population has access to high-speed broadband services.
Because BT and other internet providers limit their total number of domestic visits so that they can guarantee capacity for frontline services, the situation is not going to change any time soon.
Home networks struggling to cope
Home hubs and other equipment are going into overload as they endeavour to support data-draining services like videoconferencing while other members of the household may be logging into homeschooling servers, streaming Netflix or playing video games.
If someone is trying to conduct a workable videoconference, delays of more than about 150-200 milliseconds will render the service useless.
Mobile network operators (MNOs) are also seeing a surge in network traffic, particularly voice, because homeworkers are choosing regular audio over video calling because of call quality.
Indeed, Ofcom and the government are urging the public to use landlines where possible, but many don’t have an option because their landlines are being used as the point of entry for their home broadband network and cannot be the ‘contact me anywhere’ business tool.
Modern houses block mobile signals
In a digital age remote working ought to be possible for everyone, regardless of circumstances, and the necessary infrastructure should be in place to facilitate this. And it is available in theory. But the nation’s communications infrastructure to support homeworking en masse has never truly been put to the test – until now.
MNOs are an obvious choice to ease the burden by allowing users to switch between Wi-Fi and 4G. The issue here, however, is making sure that there is a strong enough 4G signal inside the home in the first place to facilitate this.
Many factors have to be taken into account – geographical location, the user’s chosen provider, but the biggest challenge by far is the dwelling itself.
A mobile signal is weaker by default inside any building, large or small, because raw materials like bricks, reinforced concrete, glass, iron girders, and insulating foam hamper the transmission of mobile phone signals. This is being exacerbated as a result of growing demand for 24/7 connectivity and bandwidth-hungry data applications. The mobile service needed to facilitate this – 4G – doesn’t penetrate the building as well as traditional voice-only while, conversely, requiring better signal quality to perform well – the result of which can be patchy and unreliable indoor coverage.
Bringing the outside network indoors
To overcome these coverage issues you need to take the outside network indoor using supplementary signal boosting equipment, such as mobile signal boosters. Since Ofcom’s relaxation of the rules governing their use, residential mobile coverage can be easily improved using off-the-shelf equipment. The only stipulation is that any deployed equipment must meet certain requirements set out by Ofcom. It must be network-specific, network safe and not interfere with other networks – and not many signal-boosting systems can meet Ofcom’s requirements and fulfil these criteria.
Enhanced mobile coverage in all domestic properties would certainly support mass homeworking because the fast and reliable indoor data rates could take some of the strain from the nation’s home broadband infrastructure.
An acceleration in our 5G roll-out would further help the situation because of its ability to simultaneously support many more than one million devices per square kilometre compared with the 60,000-odd devices of the current 4G networks. But 5G coverage on the scale needed is years away. Increased coverage and capacity are needed now and MNOs working in harmony with home broadband is the most practical short-term solution.
Colin Abrey is vice-president, channel sales, for the EMEA region at Nextivity