COVID-19 fuels indoor CBRS for some verticals: Special Report

Enterprises looking to switch bulk Wi-Fi onto CBRS networks may delay deployments this year, but COVID-19 has increased urgency for CBRS in some verticals. (Getty Images)

The availability of CBRS spectrum is piquing interest for in-building connectivity and FierceWireless is exploring the topic Wednesday, May 20, as part of its free virtual CBRS event during a panel session called “CBRS for in-building wireless.”

The unique sharing set-up of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) 3.5 GHz band means spectrum is now easily accessible for those that want to use the frequencies under General Authorized Access (GAA), which doesn’t require a regulatory license – similar to Wi-Fi in that sense. There is also 70 MHz of licensed spectrum up for grabs this summer in the FCC’s auction for Priority Access Licenses (PALs), with carriers, cable operators and other players expected to show up.  

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While many have been looking at CBRS for outdoor coverage, there’s also growing interest in using the spectrum to deliver in-building wireless connectivity that provides greater security and performance compared to Wi-Fi or traditional DAS set-ups. For private CBRS LTE network deployments, enterprises are considering how to leverage the technology for internal operational needs while neutral host setups provide opportunity for places like large venues to deliver wireless connectivity to the general public.

COVID-19 impacts both positive and negative

In terms of the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the outlook for CBRS, some segments could be delayed, while new needs and applications for CBRS have sprung up in other areas.

Circumstances from the public health crisis introduced a level of uncertainty across industries and Amdocs SVP & Customer Business Executive Parag Shah said the situation has slowed down the CBRS outlook a bit this year as potential users take a more cautious approach to introduce a new technology. It’s likely pushed out deployment timelines for enterprises or building owners who want to move in-building applications off of Wi-Fi and onto CBRS, he said, adding that verticals with more mission critical wireless connectivity needs could move faster given the current environment.    

“Everyone is highly interested in it, they see the value in CBRS and they believe what it can do,” Shah said, noting Amdocs expects 2020 to be a learning and developing year for the CBRS industry overall.

RELATED: Amdocs gets SAS authorization, targets CBRS-based private LTE/5G

Amdocs is one of five commercial Spectrum Access System (SAS) administers authorized by the FCC for CBRS, and provides advanced software services including managed services, with an eSIM portfolio, among other capabilities. 

Juan Santiago, head of Ruckus CBRS Business for CommScope, said in some cases, the pandemic has accelerated the need for in-building CBRS. The company has seen the crisis drive demand for in-building wireless systems that extend connectivity outside of facilities into adjacent parking lots, curbsides or tent setups for applications in hospital, retail and school settings.

“It’s a little bit counter-intuitive, but yes, the enterprises are extending out to maintain separation and social distancing,” Santiago explained. “With Wi-Fi, you don’t have the reach to get out there. With the [carrier] cell network, you have the concern of data leaving the secure IT confines of the building.”

The school example is for children who may not have access to broadband at home but are doing distance learning, while some retail is moving to point-of-sale outdoors and hospitals have set up triage facilities outside.

CBRS-enabled devices, including smartphones like the latest iPhone 11 SE, essentially act as a bridge between the indoor CBRS network and can create mini Wi-Fi hotspots to use outside. For example, Ruckus/CommScope partner RF Connect recently deployed a free CBRS-enabled OnGo private LTE network for front-line workers at Memorial Health System Clinic who are treating COVID-19 patients in triage tents. 

RELATED: RF Connect builds a private CBRS network for COVID healthcare tents

CommScope is a SAS administrator and through its Ruckus business provides gear like access points as well as software and managed services. It’s seen new applications pop up as enterprises prepare for employees returning to work. Santiago said the company’s been getting many calls from enterprises concerned with monitoring and securing perimeters for employees’ return. Similarly, they’re looking at CBRS to potentially set up mini test stations outside office doors to do things like fever checks and other screening measures.

Critical connectivity applications

The pandemic aside, organizations are eyeing private in-building CBRS networks to handle applications that require critical connectivity.

Amdocs’ Shah said as companies learn more about CBRS benefits and applicableness to their business, more enterprises will look to put mission critical applications on private CBRS networks versus a general purpose Wi-Fi network available to all users.

In a vertical like healthcare, “everything you do hospital-related could be on a private network not getting interference or having performance issues, with the patients or other users leveraging Wi-Fi just for the connectivity sake,” he said.

For Kristian Kline, principal of Network Strategy of KP Digital at Kaiser Permanente, the notion of critical connectivity and segmenting out those applications from shared bulk Wi-Fi is a key driver of his interest in deploying a private CBRS network inside the healthcare systems facilities. 

RELATED: Predictability, reliability key to private wireless networks: Special Report

Bullish on the technology, Kline said a lot of CBRS use cases “just scream healthcare,” specifically pointing to capabilities like critical connectivity, greater security, and lower-latency, all of which “are very much in demand for healthcare use cases.”

That said, earlier this year Kline told Fierce the sweet spot for CBRS in terms of Kaiser’s needs was likely one to two years out, but now he’s pushed that back to around a three-year timeframe.

The delay isn’t a direct COVID-19 impact, but rather a lack of CBRS-supported devices for healthcare workflows and connections that are wired today or run on their own wireless bands, such as waveforms for fetal monitors and heart monitors, or infusion pumps.  

RELATED: Editor’s Corner—Early CBRS deployments: Indoors or out?

While the CBRS device system is robust in other areas, Santiago agreed specialized equipment like medical devices are unlikely to have any wireless connection, let alone CBRS support at this point.

Kaiser may still do targeted work inside facilities, but along with devices, Kline wants to ensure CBRS benefits play out as promised before going forward with a wide-scale private network deployment using CBRS across the healthcare system.

In a healthcare setting, the technology “has to be pretty well-baked for us to go all in,” he explained.

Neutral host opportunity

Neutral host deployments, which can provide connectivity to the general public rather than support internal operations, are also garnering interest for CBRS from an in-building perspective.

Stadiums are looking to enhance internal operations for things like point of sale, Santiago said, but when it comes to supporting public visitors’ connectivity, there are a couple of factors that come into play.

One is device availability, and although more and more handsets are band 48 supported, there’s been an industry-wide trend of consumers taking longer to upgrade. The other is that mobile operators need to agree to have their customers roam onto private networks and ensure carriers’ customers still get the same level of quality and service.

That could mean finding a way to signal to the consumer once they enter a building that they’re no longer running on their regular mobile service provider’s network. This all comes with certain expectations and steps that still need to be worked out in order to make carriers comfortable, Santiago noted.

“It will happen, it will just take some time,” he added.