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What Is a Neutral Host Network & How to Build One

In this article we’ll explain what they are, how to build them, and how they can improve your network performance.

Neutral Host Networks are a relatively new concept for enterprises. In this article we’ll explain what they are, how to build them, and how they can improve your network performance. What makes a neutral host different from traditional models?

Neutral host models, unlike traditional models, allow multiple parties - both private and public - to use the same network that may be managed by a third party managed services provider (MSP) or the enterprise organizations themselves. This enables private mobile network devices and public mobile network operator (MNO) subscribers involved to maintain connectivity and ensure network coverage.

Let’s take a look at why neutral hosts are useful, and how they can be configured to benefit enterprise environments.

How Are Neutral Host Networks Beneficial?

Neutral Host Networks (NHN) have a wide range of applications and benefits, especially with the advent of 5G. In the past, private organizations who wanted to build their own private mobile networks would need to invest in base stations, edge devices, and serve as the network operator to ensure the network is running smoothly. Now, a single network can be shared among multiple parties to reduce costs and management overhead.

When you’re looking to scale your cellular network to cover miles instead of meters, your project costs can balloon in size. However, by leveraging existing cellular networks as neutral hosts, wide-scale coverage for your service or private network becomes a lot easier.

Being independent of a specific cellular operator or network plan gives enterprises as well as end-users greater flexibility and functionality in places that were previously not possible. Railyards can now segment their private mobile network while providing third-party access via NHNs using the same infrastructure. In this scenario, railyards can serve multiple logistics firms as they move through the rail line without compromising the security of their private network.

In isolated areas, NHNs become even more important, as large cellular network operators can’t justify the cost in low population areas. Mining outposts, transportation networks, and agricultural operations are increasingly reliant on 5G as IoT devices become a more critical component to business success. An NHN will enable multiple parties to use the same infrastructure for different purposes.

This same principle is true when you look at different mobile operators trying to serve an overly crowded area, such as a shopping mall. Without a neutral host, each network operator will have to deploy their own equipment, resulting in higher all-around costs and energy consumption. This can lead to wasted space with duplicate equipment and higher noise on the spectrum.

How a Neutral Host Works

In simple terms, a neutral host allows third parties such as enterprises, managed service providers, and other mobile operators to leverage existing cellular networks to provide service. This can be done at scale to provide private 5G to services such as autonomous vehicles or dialed back to create a separate cellular guest network at a corporate headquarters.

These networks can be deployed in a number of different hybrid configurations, but are mostly configured as either spectrum-based neutral hosts, or multi-operator small cell networks. Each can fulfill the job of a neutral host but does so differently. Spectrum-based neutral hosts own either dedicated or shared space on the private cellular spectrum options such as the CBRS in the United States, and act as their own mobile network operator. These types of networks are often used to provide service to other providers and allow other network operators to rent space on their network.

Alternatively, there is the Multi-Operator Small Cell as a Service (SCaaS) configuration that provides a neutral host architecture without having a spectrum of its own. This is achieved by using a small network of cells and sharing the backend service. If the baseband unit of the neutral host supports virtualization, the same can be achieved with a single cell that can offer multiple network operators and frequencies.

Lastly, organizations can use 5G neutral hosts inside their own environment to seamlessly segment networks. For example, a factory floor can utilize private 5G for IoT devices while simultaneously offering that same cellular service to employees or guests. Since authentication is performed via the SIM card, network segmentation can be enabled on a per device group basis.

Neutral Host Use Cases

There are many opportunities and areas to use neutral host technologies, primarily in areas where coverage is poor, or where coverage can be monetized. Let’s take a look at a few neutral host use cases.

College Campuses

College campuses can experience a wide range of reliability and speeds depending on where the device is located on campus. While 5G can provide unmatched speeds to mobile devices, it has more difficulty penetrating through walls to reach areas indoors. A cluster of private cellular access points can help bring 5G coverage indoors and to students through a neutral host network no matter where they are on campus.

Public Event Venues

Festivals and outdoor venues can utilize neutral host services to bring better coverage to remote areas for both concert-goers and staff. This can solve wireless technical challenges for on-stage devices as well as improve live marketing services and social media coverage of events.

General Enterprise

Neutral host services can help enterprise campuses to offer wireless network segmentation between private LTE / 5G wireless capable devices, Wi-Fi enabled connectivity and public cellular connections for employees and guests. Same infrastructure can also support critical smart building IoT sensor infrastructure - utilizing the best available wireless technology given the use case and IoT device type.

Challenges of Neutral Host Networking

While neutral hosts have plenty of benefits, there are a few hurdles to overcome when considering whether or not using a NHN is right for your organization. Whether you’re operating as a neutral host, or running your services off of one, there are a few points to consider.

Who is in charge of SIM provisioning? Devices authenticate and identify themselves via SIM cards on the NHN. Either the mobile network operator can provide these cards and provisioning services or be left up to the neutral host operator.

How does billing work for neutral host services? Large-scale NHNs that provide cellular service normally bill based on the amount of network resources that were used. This can become complicated when factoring in roaming charges, and data usage caps. Smaller networks that simply want to provide a guest network inside their organization won’t necessarily have to worry about complex billing since neutral hosting can offer passthrough service to a guest’s carrier.

Are there enough experts in the area to help support a NHN? Cellular technology, especially in the private space, is rapidly changing. Ensuring there are enough qualified engineers, installers, and operators in the coverage area can be a challenge depending on where the neutral host needs to operate.

Can neutral hosts still provide strict SLAs? Since neutral host networks rely on infrastructure that isn’t necessarily their own, orchestrating SLAs that meet demands can sometimes be difficult when part of that deliverable is out of the hosts control. Celona’s solution overcomes this challenge by assigning a MicroSlicing policy on throughput, latency and packet error rate metrics to both enterprise applications on private devices belonging to the enterprise and public voice and data traffic flows across each operator.

Is data still secure when using a neutral host? Wi-Fi can carry its own security and compliance risks, but so could an improperly implemented neutral host. On a physical level, mobile network operators must ensure that their infrastructure is properly secured and that methods of cellular authentication are in place to prevent eavesdropping. In a Celona powered Neutral Host Network, each MicroSlicing policy across each connected device is handled within its own segmented network backbone.  

Is the neutral host network affordable? Neutral Hosts that use Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) can be costly to implement and risk experiencing coverage issues when not all mobile network operators join the network. It is strongly recommended that an access point based system similar to Wi-Fi is utilized to enable Neutral Host use cases.

The Celona Solution

Celona partners with enterprises to help build, manage, and grow their private mobile networks to support affordable neutral host services that scale.

Through a combination of software, hardware, and AI technology, every aspect of the private mobile network is designed to work out-of-box, providing the only true turnkey solution in the private mobile network space.

If you’re looking to build your own neutral host services, we can help. Subscribe to our newsletter for the latest in private LTE and 5G wireless technology, or experience the power of private mobile networks for yourself through our free trial offer.

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