In the wake of the recent Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) decision to block the Telstra/TPG national roaming agreement, the importance of passive network sharing has gained newfound significance. As Australia teeters on the brink of a telecommunications revolution, the need for efficient and widespread digital connection in black spots and rural areas becomes more apparent than ever.
The vast and diverse landscapes, coupled with remote expanses, have historically posed a colossal challenge for effective connectivity across the nation. Passive network sharing emerges as a pivotal cost-efficient solution, rapidly gaining traction and reshaping the dynamics for both Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) and consumers alike.
In an era where seamless digital communication is paramount, passive sharing stands as a transformative force, offering an economical, practical, and collaborative approach to overcome the low revenue remote areas' connectivity challenges that have long plagued the nation.
1. Rise of the TowerCos: A Win-Win
Central to this paradigm shift is the surge of tower companies or TowerCos. Research and Markets underscore their prominence with a striking statistic: a whopping 70% of the five million telecom towers worldwide in 2022 now find themselves under the ownership and operation of TowerCos. But why is this relevant to the average consumer or business?
For MNOs, TowerCos present a golden opportunity to streamline and optimise. With the operational and financial load of tower management offloaded, MNOs can laser-focus on their quintessential mission: bolstering coverage and pioneering advanced technologies like the promising 5G.
From the TowerCo perspective, it's a numbers game. The viability of their business model escalates with more tenants per structure. The equation is simple: increase equipment sharing, and more tenants can co-exist on cheaper structures, translating to reduced rental costs. The synergy between MNOs and TowerCos is undeniably reshaping the telecommunication terrain.
Moreover, a promising mutually beneficial opportunity arises when TowerCos proactively install multi-operator solutions in their towers. This proactive strategy allows more operators to share the same tower, leading to heightened revenue for the tower company and a diminished Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for the Mobile Network Operator (MNO). Furthermore, it streamlines the process for future MNO additions, enabling a quicker plug-and-play integration and opening up new revenue avenues through connectivity leases.
2. Delving Deep into Passive Sharing
At its core, passive sharing revolves around MNOs pooling non-electronic resources. Think of the physical space on a tower, cabinets, utility connections, or even antennas and transmission lines. While active network sharing garners global attention, Australia seems to tilt towards its passive counterpart. There's a reason policymakers and regulators are enamoured with it: MNOs can collaboratively utilise sites and still keep their competitive edge. Given that the actual network equipment stays distinct, operational complications are minimal.
Yet, the narrative around passive sharing often overlooks its inherent complexity. It's not a one-size-fits-all model. Within passive sharing, there exists a multi-tiered structure.
A. Tower and Power:
The foundational layer of passive sharing involves sharing the physical infrastructure, the tower itself, and the power supply.
By sharing towers and power supplies, MNOs not only achieve significant cost savings in both capital and operational expenditures but also benefit from faster deployment of networks. This collaborative approach minimises environmental impact by reducing land usage and visual pollution and enhances network coverage by allowing MNOs to position equipment in optimal shared locations.
On the flip side, the coordination between multiple MNOs can get intricate, especially during emergencies. This shared approach may curtail the customisation as per individual MNO requirements and might also mean that a single infrastructure glitch can disrupt services for all MNOs sharing the setup.
This strategy proves indispensable in lean traffic rural areas, where infrastructure setup can be exorbitant and complex. Conversely, in densely populated urban settings, shared towers serve as an efficient means to mitigate clutter.
B. Multi-operator Connectivity:
A step further involves TowerCo offering cable connections that provide backhaul or interconnect various network elements on the tower itself. This level signifies a deeper collaboration among operators beyond just the physical.
Sharing backhaul bolsters connectivity, making it more robust and reliable. It is also a cost-effective strategy, eliminating the need for separate connections and subsequently simplifying the requisite infrastructure.
A salient challenge is the heightened dependency, where an issue in the shared connection could ripple out to all operators. Additionally, congestion might arise due to multiple MNOs vying for bandwidth, and there's always the looming concern about the integrity and security of shared data.
High-traffic venues like stadiums often rely on such shared connectivity, especially when heightened user activity demands robust connections. Similarly, remote locations where establishing multiple cable connections isn't viable benefit immensely from this approach.
On the other hand, the proactive strategy of installing sharable cabling infrastructure allows multiple operators to share the same tower, generating increased revenue for the tower company and reducing the TCO for the MNO.
Additionally, this approach streamlines the process for future MNO additions, facilitating quicker plug-and-play integration and creating new revenue streams through connectivity leases. It is crucial to note that, unlike the active backhaul connections sharing, the emphasised connectivity in this context pertains specifically to the cabling infrastructure on the tower itself.
C. Multi-operator RF Passive Components:
This advanced level of passive sharing sees MNOs sharing components related to radio frequency signals, such as antennas. It's a testament to the trust and operational efficiency that MNOs can achieve together.
Sharing RF components not only offers tangible cost advantages but also promotes efficient tower wind load capacity use. This approach translates to reduced visual and environmental impacts due to fewer antennas and related components.
This collaboration is not without its challenges. Challenges in RF planning and optimisation might arise with multiple MNOs sharing the same RF components. Maintenance can get tricky, demanding a high level of coordination, and there's always the constraint of possibly limited configuration options for individual MNOs.
Busy areas such as hotspots and city centres, where space is a luxury, often opt for such shared components to cater to the vast audience. Similarly, skyscrapers and large complexes employ this strategy to provide indoor coverage without crowding the space with multiple antennas.
3. Gaining Clarity: The Key to Progress
The evolving telecommunication landscape calls for a nuanced understanding among stakeholders. It's crucial to discern what can be shared, how it can be shared (passively or actively), and the benefits inherent in each sharing tier. As passive sharing gains prominence, grasping its multifaceted nature becomes paramount for MNOs, policymakers, and even consumers.
The telecommunications landscape in Australia is no longer what it used to be. Passive sharing, with its intricate layers, is at the forefront of this transformation. With the symbiotic relationship between MNOs and TowerCos catalysing change, the future looks promising. Connectivity, especially in Australia's remote and rural areas, is set to reach new heights. And as passive sharing evolves and deepens, so will the connections that bind us all.