GSM in a Suitcase = Double Disruption
It is not very often when a proposition comes along that promises to affect the core business of both the Network Equipment Providers and Mobile Network Operators but a small(ish) engineering company based in Thirsk, Yorkshire, called Private Mobile Networks (PMN), is trying to disrupt both business models.
As with most innovative communications companies, PMN has a background with the military. A common challenge for any military is to quickly establish communications on a rapidly changing front line. The first iterations of mobile technology were in fact developed by Motorola for use in the Second World War. The PMN solution is far easier to deploy and comes in a ruggedised suitcase with all the required components (batteries, gateway, MSC, HLR, Picocell) contained within, and is compatible with any off the shelf GSM handset.
All the required components (batteries, gateway, MSC, HLR, Picocell) are contained within a suitcase and provide four hours of battery powered communications to everyone within 600m range of the picocell. Add a power supply and you have infinite use. Add more picocells with standard power over ethernet cable connectivity for more coverage. Add a satellite dish for interconnect with the rest of the world. Even in the most remote regions of the world, within a couple of hours of establishing basecamp and soldiers can ring home to tell their families about the weather and the local scenery.
Call in the Tanks
In the Western World licensing of spectrum for GSM use is an issue, but for the military whoever has the biggest tanks control the airwaves. In 2006 the UK regulator, OFCOM licensed the GSM guard band and for £1m PMN controlled a slice of airwaves and could offer its solution to businesses throughout the UK. Given that approximately 40% of all mobile business calls are taken within buildings this is quite a large market to target.
The system basically works as an extension of the PBX providing in-building or out-of building coverage. For a basic cost of £12k, a business gets the opportunity of reducing its intra-building mobile costs to zero. And probably, they will get improved in-building coverage thrown in. Connectivity to outside the world, whether fixed or mobile, is delivered via the normal PBX.
The system is scalable and currently uses ip.access picocells with each picocell giving approximately 300m indoor and 600m outdoor coverage. The system can be engineered to give broad coverage whether in a single building or on a campus. The system can also placed on multiple servers, so that for instance, a service provider, can host the MSC and HLR functionality and resell to multiple businesses. The server hardware is standard off the shelf linux x86 kit and all the intelligence and value is in the software. Given the low price and standard components, this is quite a threat to existing Network Equipment Provider models.
The above solution is perfect for students who are based on a campus and don't mind fiddling with mobile phone settings to select another network to get free calls., However, for the time-challenged executive another solution is required and for this PMN have developed a client, which works with Symbian and Windows Mobile, which automatically detects a PMN networks and allows simple selection.
Connecting to the Big Boys
The utopian solution would be for PMN to sign a roaming deal with a national operator and switching between networks to happen automatically. As with most things in life it is all a question a price and PMN feel they will be in better position to negotiate a reasonable deal with the operators once they have the volume of minutes. The first "paid for" deployment was last August and PMN claim to be winning plenty of new business as the word spreads.
Serving the Builders, Fast
One of the most poorly served industries for communications is the construction business and PMN have developed a "GSM & Data network in a portakabin" approach for them. This can be delivered onsite and installed with satellite backhaul within two hours - a much better solution than waiting for BT to connect up the site with copper or fibre.
I wonder if the organisers at this years Glastonbury Music Festival will allow me to bring a private GSM network along with my wellies this year?
Swedish Pacman defense
In all seriousness, PMN highlight the threat to Network Equipment Providers as hardware is becoming standardised and other people start to develop flavours of their "secret sauce" software. The threat to mobile operators and their premium charging for minutes, texts and bytes is even more serious. The Swedish solution when a similar company called Spring Mobil deployed a similar solution, but using big-iron equipment provider was for Tele2 to sign a nationwide roaming agreement and take an equity stake in them.