Industry Voices—Jarich on IWCE: What public safety tells us about 5G and CBRS

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Public safety takes center stage at IWCE.

This was the first year I attended the International Wireless Communication Expo (IWCE). 

While technically about technologies used across a variety of critical industries, public safety takes center stage at IWCE. Over the past few years, then, as public safety has become a focus for telecom technology vendors—big and small—the show has become a showcase for (among other things) how these vendors are attempting to target adjacent markets beyond telecom. Of course, this was also the year that FirstNet finally got off the ground (congrats to AT&T for winning the contract), and that created a buzz at IWCE that was palpable. Add to that a CBRS workshop and it was definitely worth the visit, no matter how you feel about visiting Las Vegas.

Years in the making, it’s only natural that the award of the FirstNet contract to AT&T dominated news at IWCE. Yet, while warranted, the FirstNet discussions and debates (opt-in vs. opt-out, post-FirstNet competition, the negotiating power of big states) also obscured a few other themes and insights, including:

  • LTE, But Easy. The quest to make LTE as easy to support as technologies like Wi-Fi isn’t new, and it’s definitely not specific to the Public Safety space. But, between the need to roll out on-demand network coverage (think special events or incidents) and the skillsets available, it’s not surprising that plenty of vendors pitching LTE at IWCE were trying to make it easy. Think plug and play. Think a lot easier than the way cellular networks are rolled out. Heck, some even make it a central tenet of their messaging.
  • Where No LTE Has Gone Before. It’s cliché (though largely true) to think that every industry sees itself as a “special snowflake,” with its own, critical, unique requirements—particularly around communications technologies. It’s a lot harder to dismiss requirements as an exaggeration when they’re attached to the business of first responders. On the public safety access front, then, we can talk about preemption and prioritization over public 3G or 4G networks, but as dedicated public safety LTE networks get built we’ll need coverage where it hasn’t been needed before. Bring in the drones and backpack-sized base stations!
  • An Excited CBRS Ecosystem. If you were thinking that spectrum sharing regimes aren’t a solid fit for public safety use cases, you’d be correct; the discussions of CBRS at IWCE were largely separate from the larger public safety agenda. Yet, with Google’s Preston Marshall (Technical Program Manager, Spectrum Access … and a very public face for CBRS) delivering the opening keynote and a workshop that pulled together ecosystem players of all types, you couldn’t ignore those discussions. More importantly, you couldn’t ignore the high hopes surrounding CBRS, from neutral host public networks, to vertical-focused private networks, to Wi-Fi-style innovation with some degree of licensed protection. These visions are, of course, exactly what you’d expect from industry supporters alongside hyperbolic claims like “if we could take today’s technology back in time, this is how all spectrum would have been allocated.” Yet, where you could argue that “we’re going to change the world” messaging is reminiscent of the failed WiMAX experiment, the breadth and depth of the ecosystem is encouraging

What’s the message? Public safety, today, paints a picture (at least partial) of the larger dynamics at play in wireless.

As public safety has looked to leverage LTE, it’s needed solutions that are easy. An operator like AT&T might be familiar with the complexities of deploying a cellular network (particularly beyond the RF planning aspects), but you can’t say the same thing for most first responders. Sure, FirstNet will mask a lot of that complexity for jurisdictions working with it, but the larger point remains: pushing cellular techs into new verticals requires something easy or sold exclusively via a carrier channel.

And does the concept of driving cellular technologies into new digital industries sound familiar?

That’s right, it’s a fundamental working assumption behind 5G and CBRS. In other words, the “making X as easy as Wi-Fi” message will need to be taken to heart if the excitement, promise and hype is to be executed on.

Of course, building solutions that are “easy” but still meet the needs of diverse verticals will require vendors—big, small and everyone in between—to build an understanding of how those verticals use (or would use) wireless technologies. This understanding, or lack thereof, has been noted plenty of times in the past. And yet, if a random industry analyst can walk onto the show floor at IWCE and chat with public safety leaders about how they’re using wireless technologies, you know that network suppliers (vendors and SPs) hoping to extend their innovations beyond telecom should be in an even better position with public safety as well as other verticals. There is no excuse for not fully understanding the needs of these constituencies.

Peter Jarich is the Chief Analyst (Global Telecom and IT) for GlobalData. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.