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14 December 2021

BAI ramps up in European private 5G market with Vilicom purchase

Canada’s BAI is emerging as a leading emerging player in the private 5G neutral host model, targeting especially mobile connectivity and infrastructure for smart cities and public transport.

Its recent acquisition of UK-based Vilicom for an undisclosed sum expands its presence in the European market and also brings over 1,500 additional deployments, including some with smaller (unnamed) MNOs, according to the company, as well as various private networks spanning healthcare, hospitality and real estate. The latter includes Irish stadium Croke Park, Bristol Myres Squibb’s biologics plant and among the most interesting, an offshore windfarm in Moray East, Scotland, involving a customized private network covering 295 square kilometers (115 square miles), which we have discussed before in Wireless Watch.

BAI, which recently won the contract to deploy and run a cellular network for the London Underground metro system, gave various incentives for buying Vilicom. These included its ability to scale large private 5G networks and its communications-as-a-service (CaaS) offering, which is able to serve indoor environments and smaller venues, as well as the customers gained. The purchase “supports our move to become one of the leading 5G connected-infrastructure players both in the region and worldwide,” the company said in a statement.

Majority-owned by the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, BAI is an equity-backed company that is amassing a global portfolio of wireless design, installation and integration properties through acquisition, with revenues running at around $150m a year even before the Vilicom acquisition. Before that it had expanded in the USA through June’s acquisition of a majority stake in California-based telco infrastructure firm Mobilitie. This brought in contracts with transit operators in San Francisco and Seattle, as well as DAS (distributed antenna system) networks in 220 large public venues, plus 10,000 small cells and 300 tower sites across the USA.

BAI had entered the market for wireless connectivity in transport networks over a decade ago in 2010 when it injected cash into Transit Wireless, a New York specialist in DAS, in which it holds a majority stake now. This led BAI to provide cellular connectivity across the New York and Hong Kong underground railway systems, and then more recently London as well, bringing in three of the world’s largest subway train networks.

Progress with such subway communications has come in fits and starts, beginning with WiFi for data, later adding cellular for voice, but in both cases initially only available in stations, not inside tunnels.

In the case of London Underground, Virgin Media was the first provider of data connectivity via WiFi, but again only at or very close to stations, which limits its utility.

Virgin Media originally made WiFi access available to customers of the major MNOs – Vodafone, EE and O2  – but in June 2021 Vodafone pulled out. Vodafone has instead been investing in 4G connectivity, along with the other operators, in direct partnership with London Underground and has implemented this on part of one line, the Jubilee, between North Greenwich and Westminster.

But it made little sense for individual operators to deploy their own infrastructure underground, so this gave scope for BAI to come in, even before its acquisition of Vilicom, with a proposal to deploy a neutral host network open for access by all service providers. BAI is now collaborating with Transport for London (TfL), which runs the city’s underground network, to extend mobile coverage to 137 stations and over the 400km of paired tunnels connecting them.

This is involving deployment of 80,000 small cell and IoT sensor points above ground on a variety of street furniture or other physical points such as lamp-posts, CCTV poles, traffic signals and bus shelters owned by TfL, as well as around the stations and platforms themselves, interconnected by over 2,000km of fiber optic cable underground for backhaul.

London’s mayor Sadiq Khan confirmed this arrangement in June, and announced that both 4G and 5G connectivity would be rolled out in stages as part of a 20-year contract for maintenance and management, although the aim is to have completed provision of mobile coverage across all ticket halls, platforms and tunnels by the end of 2024.

For BAI, this provides a springboard for targeting similar contracts around Europe, reinforced by the Vilicom acquisition. This suggests that the future of wireless communications for underground transit systems will lie with cellular rather than WiFi in the 5G era, partly as a result of pressure from the mobile operators themselves, as in Vodafone’s decision to cease support for the original Virgin Media London underground system.

Through Vilicom, BAI inherits several commercial neutral host deployments based on early takes on Open RAN, which it sees as fertile ground. Vilicom announced in August that it had successfully rolled out one of the first such commercial sites with Virgin Media O2, the UK operator joint owned by Liberty Global and Telefónica. This is based on its own Open RAN platform conforming to the JOTS NHIB (Joint Operators Technical Specifications for Neutral Host In-Building) specifications. This now provides indoor coverage in public areas to Virgin Media O2’s subscribers, and by definition to those of other operators in principle, under the neutral host model.

This neutral host infrastructure has been developed by Vilicom in partnership with vRAN vendor Mavenir, using the latter’s Cloud RAN technology, which incorporates security features and support for in-building 4G at this stage, later expanding to 5G public and private mobile connectivity.

As well as improving service indoors, this also appeals to MNOs by offloading traffic from macro cells to the inbuilding networks, so that traffic generated indoors stays there rather than sapping capacity of macro cells outside.

Omar Calvo, director of radio engineering at Virgin Media O2, said: “Virgin Media O2’s neutral host solutions will deliver great in-building 4G coverage and capacity, providing a greener and more efficient network. We’re constantly looking to innovate our range of network products, and our partnership with Vilicom has allowed us to develop this NHIB technique to help transform the capabilities of in-building cellular coverage.”