California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), located roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, attracts a tech savvy and affluent student body. The university’s VP of IT Bill Britton estimates the average Cal Poly student is associated with 10 IP addresses — phones, laptops, tablets, wearables, etc. Some of the 22,000 students are using wireless networks to test new applications and launch small businesses. Britton said it can feel as if the student body is on a daily mission to “break the internet.”
Cal Poly’s connectivity landscape also includes roughly 3,000 faculty and staff, connected HVAC systems, and an innovation center where students and faculty create applications to address issues ranging from opioid overdoses to livestock infertility.
“We have Fitbits on our chickens,” said Britton. Biometric data indicates when the hen is ready to lay an egg, he explained, adding that across the campus there are tens of thousands of other innovative use cases for wireless technology.
Britton said he has three ways of keeping the campus connected: Wi-Fi fed by fiber, Ethernet and cellular. He also has a relationship with AWS, which has provisioned Cal Poly’s Digital Innovation Hub with Amazon Snowball and Snowcone edge devices, rugged infrastructure used to bring AWS compute and storage to remote environments.
Now Cal Poly is adding 5G core network software to AWS edge devices, creating a distributed private 5G network in partnership with Federated Wireless. The network uses CBRS spectrum under General Authorized Access. Federated Wireless manages the deployment, support and network maintenance, and provides the software that mediates access to the shared spectrum. Despite its oceanside location, Cal Poly is more than 100 miles away from the region’s major Naval bases. (The U.S. Navy has priority access to the 3.55-3.7 GHz spectrum.)
The Cal Poly deployment is centered in a network innovation center and currently includes just two radios, one inside and one outside. Federated Wireless CEO Iyad Tarazi declined to name the radio or antenna vendors, but noted his company has a history of working with Airspan and JMA Wireless.
Britton said the expansion of the private 5G network will be application driven. Instead of building a network and hoping people will use it, he will expand the private network to meet demonstrated needs of the campus and the larger community. He said private companies including Apple use the Cal Poly network to test new technologies.
Because the 5G network software is integrated with the AWS edge devices, the network will expand on campus as AWS cloud infrastructure expands. Student developers using AWS will automatically have access to 5G. And application developers will be able to test their new apps on a private network rather than on the shared campus Wi-Fi, Britton said.
But eventually the private cellular network will be shared with students, Britton and Tarazi predicted. They want to be able to support regular cellular communications on the private network, which would require coordination with the public carriers to enable roaming. Britton is optimistic about carrier participation. “Right after we announced this the carriers stared calling us and saying ‘how do we play?’” he said.
Britton would like to use network slicing to deliver different KPIs to different campus constituencies; i.e. one channel for students and another for campus facilities. He said that as connectivity needs increase, scaling with 5G will be cheaper than the alternative.
“It would cost $20 million to re-fiber the whole campus,” said Britton. “Now a new building might get a 5G drop instead.”