Predictability, reliability key to private wireless networks: Special Report

Enterprise performance needs, new availability of spectrum and a growing device ecosystem are driving interest in private wireless networks. (Getty Images)

Interest in private wireless networks has ramped as new spectrum like CBRS in the U.S. and elsewhere becomes available, but other aspects including the device ecosystem, costs and ease of deployment, and reliability requirements come into play when thinking about implementation, particularly for enterprise.  

Executives from Nokia and Federated Wireless shared some thoughts with FierceWireless ahead of a virtual panel session on the topic taking place during FierceWireless’ free 5G Blitz Week, called "Building and Managing Private Wireless Networks."

“This is the private wireless inflection point,” Karl Bream, vice president of strategy portfolio and alliances for Nokia's Enterprise business, told FierceWireless. He said that elements like spectrum availability, such as CBRS, and automation of physical assets for industries to improve operational efficiency are two aspects driving increased momentum and engagement from customers across industrial sectors, enabling private LTE deployments to happen now.  

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To date, Nokia has publicly announced more than 150 private wireless customers globally, with the number of deployments even higher as several customers have multiple private networks.

Federated Wireless, which has been heavily involved in shaping the shared Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) 3.5 GHz band including its role as one of four authorized Spectrum Access System (SAS) administrators, announced more than 35 customers with a number of accounts still in the pipeline.

Federated CTO Kurt Schaubach said there’s been “tremendous interest in the enterprise segment around private wireless.” Last month, Federated announced a Connectivity-as-as- Service managed system that enables enterprises to buy and deploy private CBRS-enabled 4G and 5G networks using cloud marketplaces through Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure.

Kristan Kline, head of Global Network Strategy and Operations Leader for Kaiser Permanente, the largest non-profit health care system in the U.S., is involved with mapping out next steps for wired and wireless networks and how to leverage future infrastructure. He’s eyed 5G and private networks for use in healthcare and administrative applications.

Kline, while typically pragmatic about future network capabilities, said he was unusually optimistic about private wireless and CBRS in general, though acknowledged challenges remain, in his experience, to gain traction for use cases.

“For us Wi-Fi is still going to be the majority of our connectivity in our facilities, the question is how do we leverage private cellular and does it make sense to do so from an operational and cost-perspective,” Kline said.

Why private wireless?

When it comes to private wireless, reliability and security and the ability to perform where Wi-Fi won’t suffice appear to be top of mind.

For Bream, private wireless boils down to one word – predictability. In industrial settings, whether it be a manufacturing line, rail system or a mine environment that require voice or data, customers are looking for consistent reliability and low-latency, which LTE and 5G can deliver on a predictable basis.

“These industries are really looking for this predictable higher level performance,” Bream said. For example, Nokia is working with partner Engie Solutions to deploy an industrial-grade private LTE network for new automated metro lines of the Grand Paris Express. The project covers 200 kilometers of new lines, 68 new metro stations and trains running on three Paris metro line routes.

“They’re investing because they need high-speed wireless connectivity services and they’re implementing private mobile radio solutions in order to do that because of the predictable performance,” Bream explained.

On the enterprise side, Federated is seeing demand for applications that can’t be done as well with Wi-Fi today, which largely falls into the safety and security category, Schaubach said. Many enterprises are interested in using wireless cameras, biometric scanning or perhaps facial recognition for security applications.

“But the connection to those devices needs to be highly secure, highly reliable - the bandwidth needs to be robust and consistent,” Schaubach explained. “Traditionally [enterprises] found that it’s very difficult to do that with Wi-Fi… and they see a way forward with a truly private network over 4G to get to that level of robustness with wireless security applications.”

For healthcare applications, Kline indicated private wireless might be targeted less for high-bandwidth use cases, and focused more toward critical and secure internal communication.

While Wi-Fi or DAS systems would likely continue to be used to cover member or doctors’ personal device use, Kline said the two obvious potential use cases he sees for private wireless are internal specializations. Those include telemetry, which collects measurements from patients through a variety of devices, such as heart monitors; and care delivery with voice and paging among nurses and providers.

Kline hypothesized people who “have very critical time delivery requirements for services like medical  wave forms and telemetry are not going to be happy with a shared Wi-Fi experience, even with the LTE-like experience included in Wi-Fi 6.”

Federated is also seeing interest in critical communications applications, which Schaubach described as an upgrade cycle for enterprises that might be using more traditional push-to-talk applications.

Some of those systems run on private narrowband spectrum channels authorized for the enterprise, which Schaubach said is a challenge for enterprises in that the systems are “end of utility” since they only support voice.

“They’re really looking for more integrated solutions for their workforce, maybe security personnel or operations personnel in a big factory or over a campus,” he said. “They see CBRS with both integrated voice and data capabilities that’s very reliable because it’s 4G and it’s designed for mobility applications as being a great upgrade option for their systems which are kind of end of life.”

Device ecosystem

In addition to spectrum availability and increased automation, both Schaubach and Bream pointed to a robust device ecosystem helping to advance private wireless deployments

“The device ecosystem is now rallying around the different spectrums, not just smartphones and tablets but also non-smartphone devices and we’ve seen that grow,” Bream said, adding that there are thousands of these already available. He acknowledged specific additional devices will be needed in certain settings and that it depends on the use case.

Schuabach said that while the healthcare industry is generally starting to take a very close look at CBRS for private wireless, it’s still the early stages. That's in part because the industry relies on technology that’s embedded in devices as part of their healthcare regime.

“When monitors and other things used in a hospital setting have a CBRS capability embedded in them like they do with Wi-Fi today, then I think you’ll start to see greater take up of CBRS in that environment,” Schaubach said.

Kline echoed this sentiment, indicating the lack of supported devices specific to healthcare environments represents one of the two major hurdles of private wireless adoption. Care delivery badges worn by nurses, for example, only connect to Wi-Fi and not cellular.

“There’s going to have to be a product catch-up on private LTE or private cellular as a viable alternative for all of these devices,” Kline said. “[Enterprises] are not going to try to Frankenstein a care-delivery badge to be private LTE as opposed to Wi-Fi or some licensed cellular, we want to buy solutions that fit our use cases.”

In addition to a focus on industrial segments like logistics, utilities, and transportation, Nokia has experience in healthcare working with Finland’s Oulu University Hospital, where it’s implemented private wireless networks, among other work.

Generally, when it comes to devices that need private wireless support, Bream said Nokia can tap its partner resources to deliver those for customers.

“If the overall ecosystem didn’t have the device, we were able to go get that device for those customers and make sure they were able to take advantage of the private wireless network,” he said.

Ease of deployment and costs

While there doesn’t appear to be a lack of interest in private wireless networks, implementing may seem daunting to some and vendors are trying to offer solutions that make it easier

Schuabach noted that while the last four months have seen a particularly large demand for private wireless in the enterprise, some see it as very complicated.

“It’s really difficult for them to understand how to deploy and operate a 4G LTE network in their enterprise because they do things that are IT centric and so much about LTE today is very telco-centric,” he explained.

To that end, Federated launched its connectivity solution, which Schuabach believes will overcome the main challenge in CBRS adoption in the enterprise. It works as an end-to-end service, including design, deployment configuration, and at a flat monthly fee. Enterprises may be more comfortable as it looks similar to how they might work with a service provider.

Nokia, for its part, has tools that enable customers who may require variation in how they deploy networks using module pieces to fit specific needs. For enterprises that see deployments as more complex, the vendor’s developed a plug and play solution that Bream said can be up in 15 minutes or less.

Complexity issues aside, enterprises are likely to take cost versus capabilities into consideration when deciding whether to deploy private wireless.

Kline said: “Enterprises will really have to make a good case for private LTE – is it really going to be better than Wi-Fi and worth it for me to buy more gear, put more antennas in my ceiling and operationally take care of. That burden I think is going to be pretty high.”

When it comes to costs Bream thinks there may be some perceptions for enterprise that private LTE and 5G will be extra expensive because of the predictable high performance experienced from carrier deployments.

“What we see is it depends on the deployment,” he explained, pointing to wider geographies like a factory floor, mine or transportation line, since LTE and 5G can cover broader areas. “What happens is the TCO (total cost of ownership) of private LTE and private 5G is actually lower than the equivalent Wi-Fi cost.”

That’s because, for example, where a customer has 1,000 Wi-Fi access points, they many only need 100 private LTE or private 5G access points, he explained. In addition, the replacement cycle for LTE and 5G is further out than Wi-Fi based on the technologies' performance characteristics.

While most of Nokia’s more scaled deployments are LTE, early private 5G deployments are also underway, which Bream expects to scale up later this year and in 2021.

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