Wi-Fi is no longer the obvious choice for companies that want to deploy an enterprise wireless network. Private cellular networks, which are already used by several energy and transportation companies, are becoming more accessible for a wider range of businesses. Governments around the world are making spectrum more readily available to non-service provider entities, and this is fostering the development of a robust ecosystem of network equipment and devices. Much of this equipment operates in the 3.5 GHz spectrum band, which the U.S. has made available as Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS).
Cellular has always offered more security, reliability and control than Wi-Fi, and now 5G networks are delivering higher speeds and lower latencies than what Wi-Fi 6 can offer consistently. That doesn’t mean that enterprises will abandon Wi-Fi in favor of 5G; many companies are expected to use both technologies.
“Ultimately our belief is that these private wireless networks will really be hybrid in nature,” said Yogen Patel, vice-president and head of network and enterprise marketing at Amdocs. “They’ll be an integrated mix of cellular, Wi-Fi and in some cases wired technology as well, covering a whole broad range of indoor and outdoor use cases.”
Amdocs helps companies design, source, integrate and deploy enterprise wireless networks. Right now, the firm is working with several customers who are using CBRS spectrum for private networks. Patel said companies are often motivated to deploy private wireless because they want guaranteed levels of performance and more control, but in order to achieve that they need to make sure the network is optimally designed and that components are integrated properly. “When you think about everything involved, it’s a pretty complex undertaking to get these networks up and running,” he said.
Complex, yes, but very possible thanks to an evolving ecosystem of equipment suppliers, integrators and software providers. System integrators tie it all together for enterprises, helping them identify radio access and core network providers. Increasingly, these resources leverage software, meaning that companies have more choices and easier upgrade paths.
Companies that use CBRS spectrum also need a spectrum access system (SAS) to ensure that they do not interfere with incumbent or licensed users of the band. The FCC has certified five companies to provide SAS services: Amdocs, CommScope, Federated Wireless, Google and Sony.
Factory automation is a leading use case for private cellular networks, according to Patel. He said data collection and production automation become much more flexible when manufacturers can free themselves from the limitations of wired networks. Automakers have been on the forefront of the private wireless trend, because they value reconfigurable production lines. The German automakers have led the way and others are expected to follow suit, combining the speed of 5G with the power of edge computing.
Shipping ports are seen as another set of major customers for private cellular, and for the most part their near-term use cases will not require 5G. LTE is typically sufficient for surveillance, automation and coordination of traffic flows, which are the primary ways that ports use wireless networks today.
Utilities and energy companies have used private cellular networks for years and are expected to accelerate this activity thanks to CBRS. In the U.S. government’s recent CBRS auction, Chevron paid just over $1 million for 26 priority access licenses, and Alabama Power Company paid almost $19 million for 103 licenses.
The education sector is also expected to be an important user of private wireless networks. The global pandemic has highlighted the digital divide that separates students with internet access from those who cannot get online without visiting a public place. Recognizing that home internet access is foundational to academic success even as schools reopen, U.S. schools and municipalities are finding funds and expertise to create networks for their students.
The role of service providers
Spectrum is becoming available to a growing number of entities, and many core network functions can now be enabled in the cloud on off-the-shelf hardware. Does this mean that service providers will be sidelined as companies start building and operating their own 5G networks? Probably not, according to Patel.
“Managed services for private wireless network deployment and operations could be a significant growth opportunity for service providers,” he said. “These networks are going to be hybrid in nature and they are going to be complex. The CSPs have a lot of expertise.” He said that as 5G rolls out, operators will be able to leverage network slicing, RAN and core sharing, and local breakout to enable private networks for corporate customers. Amdocs, which has a long history of supporting public wireless networks, is talking to several CSPs about ways the company can support them in their private network initiatives.
The trends that are encouraging investment in private wireless show no sign of abating. Government initiatives and technology evolution are converging to create more ways for enterprises to access more spectrum. “The hurdle of spectrum and devices being available has been crossed,” said Patel. “Wherever there is a mechanism for localized, granular, piecemeal spectrum access, that is going to spur acceleration of private wireless networks.”
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