AT&T has publicly jumped on the private wireless bandwagon in the past two weeks. Today, it said it’s adding Nokia’s technology to its stable of private wireless solutions. This follows close on the heels of last week’s similar news that it would offer Ericsson’s technology for private wireless.
The carrier will help enterprises set up private wireless networks via its AT&T Private Cellular Networks portfolio, using Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum. The service will initially use LTE technology, but AT&T plans to offer 5G private wireless soon.
At a FierceWireless CBRS event today, there was some friendly and informative back-and-forth between AT&T Business VP of Mobility Robert Boyanovsky and Google Engineering Director Preston Marshall.
Marshall has been one of the visionaries and main champions of shared CBRS spectrum for several years. Today, he said, “When we set up the whole idea of CBRS, pretty much everybody hated it. The traditional unlicensed people were ticked that it wasn’t all unlicensed. And AT&T, CTIA all criticized it wasn’t all completely licensed. So almost no one was standing there except for poor Google.”
Boyanovsky laughed. He said, “For us at A&T we knew this was going to be a force to be reckoned with. CBRS/private networks was something that customers are definitely paying attention to and there’s interest there. Spectrum is one of those resources that it depends on what the business outcome and requirements are. Spectrum is just one of many elements, and we look at it across the entire continuum.”
Private wireless business models
The panel then turned to a discussion of the business models around CBRS and private wireless.
AT&T sees different business models emerging whether they are an opex-heavy model or a capex-heavy model, depending on the desires of the enterprise. “We wanted to be as available as possible on any of the business models,” said Boyanovsky. “Whether that’s a straight CBRS plug-and-play solution through reselling with Nokia and Ericsson or a hybrid DAS system with multi-access edge compute that gives customers the control they want under licensed spectrum. We believe there’s going to be emerging models, and we want to participate in all of them.”
Marshall noted that CBRS opens up “almost a continuum of options.” He said that in the past enterprises had two choices: either a monthly SIM card from their carrier or Wi-Fi. But with CBRS and private wireless they can choose a capex or opex model, something in between, or a neutral host that has some kind of cost-sharing arrangement.
“It’s not surprising that the industry has not converged on: what are the three or four popular sub-models?" said Marshall."I think that’s part of the excitement for CBRS. We see some companies going down the path of looking for very stand-alone very activist private deployers. In other cases, it’s people looking for much more of a turn-key solution – the opex one that AT&T just mentioned.”
Marshall noted that the CBRS band has sometimes been dubbed “the Innovation Band,” and he said it doesn’t just bring innovative technology, it also brings innovation in the business models.
Interestingly, he said in the early days of CBRS discussions, “Private LTE was almost unimaginable to us at the time.”
Marshall predicts that a variety of business models with flourish for a while until the community converges on the ones that work well for all of the parties. In another call-out of AT&T he said, “I’d like to see more people contribute to the CBRS Alliance, to our local breakout, where we’re looking at those features. AT&T, you guys could help a lot there.”
In terms of the business model, AT&T is also looking closely at the bandwidth growth that might be wrought by private wireless networks. “As we look at our capital plan next year: bandwidth growth around these use cases is something we’re going to be very watchful around,” said Boyanovsky. “How much bandwidth is necessary? How much licensed and unlicensed spectrum do we put to bear to make these private systems deliver on the bandwidth requirements than any one customer would have?”
Marshall said that enterprises will have to face a cultural challenge with private wireless networks because the networks come from the telecom industry, which is different than the IT industry they’re accustomed to dealing with. “People have to get comfortable that they’re going to be working in two different types of technology,” he said. “We haven’t yet built that bridge that makes CBRS look like IT. It looks like a system that was spawned in a telco world. They have to recognize that they’re opening a system that doesn’t just plug into an IT framework. They’re going to have to have unique skills.”
Boyanovsky said, “ Serving enterprise customers at AT&T, you get invited to just about every conversation from just about every Fortune 1000-type customer.” He said they’re interested in private wireless over CBRS because it provides privacy, control and security.
“The data that they’re looking to manage really should be localized and sit on prem and be highly secure,” he said. “With private cellular CBRS, the enterprise can control their data. That’s the number one thing that we get asked about when talking to customers. How can we control our own environment, how can we keep our data completely safe on-prem and localized?”
He also said they want it all to be “really, really easy” and quick to install, preferably in a couple of days or less.