The Utah Education and Telehealth Network (UETN) is using a CARES Act grant to deploy a private LTE network that students can access without entering the buildings. Some Utah schools that opened this fall have had to close again due to COVID outbreaks, and their need for network access dovetailed perfectly with private wireless plans that were already in the works at UETN.
UETN, which connects more than 1,500 schools and facilities across the state, had already started an RFP process when COVID closed schools and the federal government made CARES Act funds available. A CBRS pilot that was planned for four locations turned into an $800,000 project that will connect 25 schools at the outset.
Jim Stewart, CTO of UETN, said his team selected a core network provided by TLC Solutions and built on the Quortus software-defined enhanced packet core platform. He said the Quortus core can operate in different spectrum bands with radios from multiple vendors, has a clear migration path to 5G, and can be operated by his team with support from TLC Solutions. TLC is leading the core network integration as the team gets started.
The network supports LTE data, but not voice traffic. Devices that separate the control plane traffic from the user plane traffic will keep each school’s data on-campus. “We get the control plane traffic so we know the traffic is part of our network and we know what class of service and capabilities you have, but leave the data [local],” said Stewart.
Radio vendors for the private LTE network include Baicells and Ruckus, which is part of CommScope. Hunt Electric is deploying the radio network. Each school will get one outdoor Ruckus Q910 CBRS access point and one or two indoor Q710 APs, depending on the size of the building. Stewart said the goal is to blanket each building with coverage and to propagate the LTE signal in all directions outside the buildings. Students can connect from the schools’ parking lots or stadiums in order to access the districts’ content and communicate securely with teachers and other students.
UETN is supplying school districts with SIM cards which they can use in devices that support CBRS. Schools also get edge routers, which function as LTE hot spots and are supplied by Cradlepoint and other vendors. Stewart’s engineers are helping the schools deploy their equipment.
Stewart said more than one Utah school district is working on private LTE in CBRS spectrum, and he thinks district funding for this technology will soon outweigh federal funding.
Learning on the fly
Stewart said the UETN network is very much a work in progress, and that his goal is to try various configurations and fail fast so that his team can learn what doesn’t work and what does work. One question is how far the radios will transmit in various environments. In some cases the Ruckus Q910 APs can broadcast up to 800 meters, but the range is usually less than that. He said Baicells CPE units act as extenders for the CBRS access points, increasing the network’s reach. However, he has told the schools in his district that the signal is not meant to provide LTE for the community-at-large, even though several smartphones now support CBRS.
UETN is using generally available, unlicensed CBRS spectrum for its network. Stewart said his team considered bidding for priority access licenses (PALs) and decided it wasn’t necessary. “I just think there is going to be a secondary market,” Stewart said. “We are already talking to some of the PAL winners, and when you think about going inside our buildings, they really can’t go in there without us anyway. … I think they’re going to work with us.”
Stewart said his interest in private wireless started more than two years ago. “We were looking for some sort of a solution that stayed wireless but gave you some of the benefits of having the fiber connection,” he said. He started learning about 5G, and realized that the next generation of cellular would require an exponential increase in the number of in-building radios needed. “I don’t want the carriers to get into that space and start charging me for every bit that I pass inside … all the 1,700 buildings that we connect,” he said. So Stewart started investigating private wireless, starting with Educational Broadband Service and soon pivoting to CBRS. So far, he likes what he sees. “I think there’s a lot of great things that will happen with this,” he said.
Although Stewart doesn’t want to rely on the wireless carriers, he said he would love to partner with them to help enforce policies. He said the parents in his district have concerns about what their kids can see online, and he thinks the carriers could help enforce the private network’s content restrictions. “It would be great if whatever government building you were in, you had that ability to authenticate when you’re inside,” Stewart said. “We could do some things to make sure that if you were a K-12 student inside any one of those buildings, we’d make sure you were filtered and we’d have some control over that.”
From a public carrier’s perspective, connecting users to a private network could make sense if the carrier can boost performance by offloading traffic, or can differentiate itself from competitors by providing access to private network content. Like the entities that are experimenting with private wireless, carriers are learning. Carriers and school districts are both likely to keep an eye on UETN’s progress in the coming months.
“UETN is a thought leader,” said Quortus CEO Mark Bole. Quortus, which is based in the UK, has licensed its core network solution to roughly 200 customers, most of whom deploy multiple private LTE cores. With 1,700 discrete sites, UETN clearly has the potential to follow this model.
Although UETN did not acquire CBRS spectrum in the recent government auction, several educational institutions did, and Bole said this is a good sign for private LTE in the U.S. He added that in Europe, some educational groups acquire spectrum and lease some of it to third parties, a model that he thinks may also work in the U.S.