Shared networks and neutral host models have been slow to take hold in the RAN, but may become essential to affordable 5G roll-out (see separate item above). As noted in that article, Japan and China are experimenting with some advanced approaches to co-investment in 5G, and the power companies are particularly active. Japanese utilities have already signed deals to let new mobile entrant Rakuten use their infrastructure to accelerate its 4G, and future 5G, deployment. Now one of the power companies, TEPCO of Tokyo, is partnering with Rakuten, and also with two of the three established MNOs – KDDI and Softbank – on a shared small cell project.
The deployment is taking advantage of the common practice, in Japanese cities, of having power lines supported by poles rather than buried under the streets. The three MNOs are working together on trials of RAN sharing, leveraging TEPCO’s power line infrastructure to remove at least one of the barriers to dense urban roll-out – power supply. The other major barriers, siting and backhaul issues, will be better addressed if those resources are shared between several MNOs.
TEPCO and KDDI kicked off the program, looking at ways to share utility poles and other electric power infrastructure, as well as active base station equipment, between multiple operators. Those evaluations now complete, the real world trials can begin, with Rakuten and Softbank joining the party.
The three operators are particularly focused on future dense 5G networks implemented in millimeter wave bands, since large numbers of cells will be needed and shared infrastructure will become more important.
During the trials, they will study many issues such as equipment performance and form factor, network layout, ease of installation and serviceability, and the level of interference that might arise from these shared configurations.
Interestingly, there are plans to include more companies in the trials once they kick off during the coming 1-3 months. Any organization planning to use 5G in an outdoor and urban environment would be relevant, so various industries, as well as transport authorities or local governments, could potentially take part.
The founding partners already have a web of relationships. Rakuten is using KDDI’s 4G network on an MVNO basis in areas where it will not deploy its own base stations in the first phase; and it is supporting KDDI’s own launch of mobile finance services, based on its own digital platform.
And KDDI already works with TEPCO and four other power companies to sell electricity. Also, last month, the second MNO announced a partnership with TEPCO which will see it offering discounts to its mobile subscribers if they pay their mobile bills in conjunction with electricity or gas bills.