Retail explores use of CBRS private wireless networks for backhaul, security

shopping mall
There are at least three distinct use cases for CBRS private networks in malls and other retail settings. (Pixabay)

Retailers are already starting to use Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) private wireless networks for outdoor connectivity. Analysts say there are several ways for malls and theme parks to use the technology, including backhaul, internal communication and interactive kiosks.

CBRS for backhaul

According to technology analyst Chris DePuy of The 650 Group, backhaul is the primary use case for one of the first real-world deployments of CBRS in the retail world. DePuy said New Jersey's American Dream complex, which opened in late 2019, will still use Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to connect kiosks and terminals to smartphones and to one another. But instead of Ethernet backhaul, the retailer is using CBRS. "They needed to get it done," DePuy explained. "In the midst of a really big project, each sub becomes dependent on the other ... so they set up some CBSDs, and now they don’t need to wait for conduit for backhaul."

CBRS could be a longterm solution for American Dream, a 3-million-square-foot mall that includes a theme park, ice skating rink and indoor ski center. By the spring of 2020, several CBRS end-user devices that could support retail were already certified, including two scanners and 10 smartphones (including two iPhone models).

CBRS for internal communication

Mega-malls and theme parks cannot afford the internal communication failures that can happen on overloaded public cellular or private Wi-Fi networks. That could motivate some of them to invest in CBRS, either through privately owned and operated networks, or through partnerships with mobile carriers.

Analyst Monica Paolini, principal at Senza Fili, thinks retailers and others will initially use CBRS to support "mature applications that have a clear, well-known advantage," such as voice, data and video transfer. She thinks companies will consider the investment because they need "better coverage and more control." 

LTE is better than Wi-Fi for some of these use cases, according to Federated Wireless, one of the companies authorized by the FCC to manage CBRS spectrum. “LTE is inherently a voice and data technology and can be operated in ... a true network configuration,” said Federated Wireless CTO Kurt Schaubach. “CBRS spectrum is highly deterministic versus very opportunistic like you see with Wi-Fi. So enterprises feel comfortable putting things like video cameras or image recognition over it.”

CBRS for kiosks and point-of-sale systems

Retail was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and when retailers re-opened they were compelled to enforce social distancing in a highly social business. Digitization is one way to reduce the number of humans in a retail environment. “To the extent that there are bricks and mortar stores coming back, they are going to be coming back in a very computerized way,” said DePuy. “I’m sure you’ll be talking to kiosks more than people.” Eventually, those kiosks may connect to CBRS access points instead of Wi-Fi, according to the CBRS Alliance. The group is promoting augmented reality and virtual reality as solutions that retailers can enable through cellular networks.

CBRS Alliance President Dave Wright said the technology also offers advantages for point-of-sale systems that have traditionally used Wi-Fi. “The unlicensed frequencies tend to be extremely heavily utilized and so sometimes the POS systems can’t cope with the lack of certainty that they experience in heavily congested unlicensed environments,” Wright said. “So the fact that CBRS can come in with a relatively greenfield spectrum environment, coupling that with a cellular-based airlink, either LTE or 5G, gives them both a consistency in performance and an increased range, and if they’re using portable devices it also gives them typically better battery life just because of the efficiencies on the client side.”

Access to spectrum for retailers

Retailers that operate in crowded urban areas may not have the luxury of using the CBRS spectrum under the FCC’s general authorized access (GAA) rules. In dense urban areas there will probably be competitors for the spectrum, so retailers may need licenses. The FCC will be auctioning priority access licenses (PALs) for CBRS spectrum in July 2020. There will be seven licenses for each U.S. county. According to Paolini, the chance that a big retailer will bid for a license is low. She said it is more likely that a “non-service provider entity” will try to acquire CBRS licenses in the auction with the goal of leasing them to enterprises. Acquiring spectrum access this way would be less of a commitment for a retailer, and it would make the spectrum an operating expense rather than a capital investment.

A small retailer in an urban area probably wouldn't try to acquire or lease spectrum, but might access CBRS through its wireless carrier if the carrier were able to use CBRS to offer enhanced service. 

“If you are a provider of 5G, you could use CBRS as a way to aggregate spectrum to increase your capabilities for 5G,” explained 5G Americas President Chris Pearson, adding that this use case is dependent on vendors making 5G NR equipment for the CBRS spectrum.