Private cellular networks have gained attention as a way for enterprises to have more control over a network that brings benefits like added security and reliability, with more capacity from mid-band spectrum.
The availability of Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) spectrum provides an opportunity for companies to tap cellular connectivity often for applications where Wi-Fi won’t fit the bill or other options are cost prohibitive. And it’s not just CBRS alone. Anterix, formed by the founders of Nextel, is a good example. It is bringing 900 MHz to utilities for wide-area private network needs, and it sees mid-band 3.5 GHz as a complement to overlay for added capacity, according to CEO and president Robert Schwartz.
The topic of CBRS for private networks in verticals including transportation, energy and other industrials will be in focus on Tuesday at FierceWireless CBRS Week Fall, a free virtual event.
GAA vs PALs
The FCC auction for Priority Access Licenses (PALs) in the shared CBRS band wrapped up recently, generating around $4.5 billion.
While a record number of bidders participated, as Nokia’s head of business development for private wireless Dustin LaMascus noted, “It was service providers that gobbled up the PAL licenses.” That includes Verizon, who spent around $1.4 billion as well as cable operators.
Around 30 enterprises purchased PALs, meaning “it’s a pretty finite scope” that own PALs to put to use for private wireless, LaMascus said. The PAL ecosystem is still developing as service providers integrate the spectrum and figure out go-to-market strategies, noting those are conversations Nokia is having.
Still, there’s 80-megahertz of unlicensed CBRS available under General Authorized Access (GAA), and the three-tier sharing paradigm means users can also tap the other 70 MHz when a PAL holder isn’t using it.
To that point, just today the Finnish vendor and AT&T announced they will provide CBRS private networks using the carrier’s spectrum and Nokia infrastructure. AT&T, notably, didn’t win any PALs at the CBRS auction.
“When you look at the large number of vendors and carriers…utilities and other sectors that are coming forward and saying private LTE is here to stay as a category and a product,” Schwartz said, the auction wasn’t just about winners but shows support of the ecosystem rallying around CBRS.
He pointed to a similar announcement last week between AT&T and Ericsson for CBRS private networks, as further evidence of the recognition of the need for private LTE.
“The great thing is it’s all on the global 3GPP LTE standard,” Schwartz said. “If you’re deploying something, it’s compatible.” Interoperability of chipsets and infrastructure provides the ability for a utility or other industrial to have a private network in its own territory and use public networks outside.”
Initial commercial deployments for CBRS started at the end of 2019, and PAL holders are just starting or preparing to put their spectrum to use, so some still may question whether GAA spectrum will be sufficient for most private network use cases.
Ken Hosac, VP of IoT Strategy & Business Development at Cradlepoint, said this remains a key question for everyone without a certain answer yet, but believes GAA is up to the task.
“I personally think GAA is going to provide plenty of bandwidth for people that want to use it,” Hosac told Fierce, pointing to the 15 10-megahertz channels across the full 150 megahertz of CBRS, with seven licensed and eight unlicensed. “Even the licensed [PAL] channels, if they’re not being used that goes to the general pool, so I think it’s going to really be well down the road before they get used up.”
Hosac has plenty of experience with CBRS both on a professional level with early deployments, as well as personal. In 2019 Hosac set up his own personal private LTE network at home using CBRS, running all of his connections – Netflix, Nest thermostats, Zoom calls, Windows updates, etc. They connected through a Cradlepoint router with CBRS private LTE that would transmit to a small cell, backhauled by a cable modem - for the entire year. He had to get Special Temporary Authority (STA) from the FCC to do so.
The experiment came in handy during more than 70 customer conversations where Hosac could respond confidently that CBRS is “very reliable.”
An exception to the service provider dominance of PALs is utility companies. Almost a dozen utilities won CBRS licenses, including San Diego Gas and Electric, which spent $21 million and Southern California Edison which paid $118 million.
“The fact that those industrial users were saying it’s important enough for us to pay for spectrum was a pretty monumental public statement,” said Schwartz.
Utilities and industrials that bought PALs want to own the spectrum, but Anterix thinks GAA is also very valuable for those that didn’t succeed or participate at the auction – particularly as an overlay to 900 MHz.
The advent of available CBRS spectrum came at just the right time for Anterix, which is the largest holder of 900 MHz spectrum, which recently got a favorable ruling from the FCC to enable broadband services in the band.
Formerly pdvWireless, Anterix has seen a tremendous amount of interest and demand for private LTE, and is specifically focused on the utility sector. It’s working with more than 40 utility and industrial users on developing architectures for private LTE, and has already experimented operating under six FCC STAs.
“These users are used to having a level of control within their networks,” Schwartz said. Utilities have used private networks for decades, but now they’re looking to future-proof with reliable and secure networks and to consolidate existing, single-purpose networks. Anterix provides long-term leases for spectrum in the 900 MHz band and saw a need for private LTE early on.
Interest in CBRS has accelerated that, and rather than compete, Schwartz said the two are complementary. Spectrum at 3.5 GHz is great for serving campuses and in-building uses, while low-band helps cover wide areas, he noted.
“Not only do you get the economics of broad coverage with lower costs, you also get all the in-building penetration in the utility substations and other areas that you get with low-band that you don’t get with higher band spectrum,” Schwartz said.
Incremental capacity could be used in urban cores or substations, he said, with CBRS providing a burst for more throughput if and when needed, on top of the reliability of owned 900 MHz spectrum.
Nokia for its part already has more than more than 180 private wireless customers globally, and 80-90% fall within industrial verticals such as energy, mining, logistics and transportation.
Nokia’s LaMascus said between 30-40% of the vendor’s private wireless deployments are in the North American market and CBRS is accelerating that – something he expects to continue in 2021.
While CBRS is Nokia’s de facto standard for private LTE engagements, LaMascus said many are non-CBRS. For example, Nokia has an agreement with satellite service provider GlobalStar to take advantage of their licensed band 53 spectrum that sits at the top end of Wi-Fi bands, as an option that’s included in vendor’s private wireless solution.
This could be useful if potential customers are in an area where they’re concerned with Navy interference, or a mission critical use-case where you can't risk internet connection being brought down by the SAS.
When it comes to industrial verticals, there are some specific use-case needs for private wireless, but others transcend across industries.
It runs the whole gamut, according to LaMascus. Security, for example, is key to many segments be it manufacturing or energy.
“Security is important and having the ability to use CBRS private wireless, for example, to backhaul and connect security cameras and do video analytics, that’s something that really resonates with a lot of different industries,” LaMascus said.
That speaks to a use case Cradlepoint’s Hosac called out: the American Dream Mall which utilized dozens of large digital Samsung signage computers as well as video cameras to get insights about what was happening in the parking areas. They used private LTE over CBRS to backhaul, versus the other option of fiber, which would have cost around $4 million.
For utilities like electric companies, security, resiliency and protection of the grid are significant factors for critical infrastructure.
“The communications layer for them is the security for that system,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz pointed to the example of a wildfire, as a specific and high-value use-case, where private networks could help detect potential disruption ahead of time, say if a line breaks because of a downed tree.
"The technology exists to put sensors on that line and if you had the coverage there could be able to read that the circuit is no longer open because the line broke, and actually turn off the power before that line hits the ground," Schwartz said. "What's preventing that from being deployed broadly is a [lack of] private network to give them the low-latency communications into these areas where there's risk."
Manufacturing, meanwhile, might be more focused on applications like autonomous guided vehicles to automate the movement of raw materials or finished goods, according to LaMascus, who noted this application shines when compared to Wi-Fi.
“One of the weaknesses of Wi-Fi is that it wasn’t really built for mobility, it was built more for nomadic use,” he said, whereas LTE had mobility baked in from the ground up.
For an oil and gas use case, Cradlepoint in partnership with PK Solutions and others, applied private CBRS to servicing oil refinery tanks, using IoT sensors. Biometric IoT sensors were used for worker safety, as well chemical sensors to identify toxic chemicals. Cradlepoint provided the gateway for those IoT sensors, using the LAN side with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to connect to sensors, and the WAN connectivity side for private LTE.
“In the early days of private LTE, it’s going to be rare that you find a lot of devices that support LTE natively,” Hosac said. Over time more devices like cameras will have native support, but people that want to put private LTE in place will need something like a router that “can essentially bridge those devices onto an LTE network.”