CBRS veterans share lessons learned

The availability of unlicensed CBRS spectrum for private wireless networks is creating new opportunities for both enterprises and vendors, and as device support for Band 48 increases, deployments may as well. Recently, three veterans of early CBRS initiatives shared advice during a Connect(X) panel entitled How to Develop a Private Networking Strategy, moderated by analyst Norman Fekrat (above, left), managing partner at Imagine Wireless.

Vendors and integrators need to fully understand the use cases a customer wants a private network to serve, according to all three panelists: Mike Owen, CTO at BearCom (above, right) Brendan O’Reilly, CTO at BAI Communications (above, center right), and Todd Gore, VP service provider sales at Celona (above, center left).

BAI Communications' Mobilitie subsidiary is deploying CBRS at California's Dignity Health Sports Park; Celona has deployed CBRS at California State University Stanislaus; and BearCom helped build a private CBRS network for Fort Worth ISD.

Probing customers about what they really hope to accomplish, for the organization and the end users, is the best way to design a network that will not leave a customer thinking they overpaid for a network that underperforms, the panelists said.

“If you sell somebody a dud and walk away you take value out of the chain for everybody,” said O’Reilly. “You have to hold the customer’s hand and make sure they see value.” O’Reilly also cautioned against overselling customers on what a network can accomplish. “The customer should not think you can solve all their problems Day One,” he said.

Customers who write RFPs that focus solely on network KPIs can be hard to please, O’Reilly said, not because the networks can’t deliver the KPIs, but because the KPIs don’t always translate to business value. “The best conversations we’ve had … are those that focus solely on the outcome,” he said.

O’Reilly and Owen have both worked with public sector customers, and both men said time and money can be saved by getting these customers to identify the underserved areas within their jurisdictions that truly need coverage, instead of trying to blanket a large area with CBRS.

Public sector customers may also have financial models that differ from those of the private sector. Profitable businesses may prefer the operating expense of a network-as-a-service over a big upfront investment, but the panelists said cities and school districts may prefer a capital investment because they can pay for it with one-time government funding. Ongoing operating expenses are harder to commit to in the public sector, since budgets can be unpredictable.

Not all municipal private networks have delivered for cities, said Celona’s Todd Gore. He reported several large municipalities have invested in large private networks that now sit unused, with just a handful of end user devices connected. “It’s a nothing burger,” said Gore. “There are lots of those.”

Gore blamed these failures on poor planning, not on the inability of city IT staff to run a cellular network. Owen agreed, reporting success in training school district employees to run their network.

“Early on there was a myth that nobody can use an EPC because it is a telco network and these are IT people,” he said. “Well, it’s really an IP network. … once they go through and learn they can maintain a lot of it.”

School districts and cities are more likely to struggle with end user device support, Owen said, because they don’t have help desks to support callers and help them troubleshoot.

The panelists said getting private sector businesses interested in CBRS can be a challenge. “This whole cellular thing just looks ominous, so some enterprises just say ‘to heck with it - I’m going to do Wi-Fi’,” summarized Gore.

O’Reilly noted some enterprises are also reluctant to allow access to their IT networks. “When you go to an industrial manufacturing plant, they don’t want a telco person touching their enterprise network,” he said. “They want … a trusted third-party integrator that they have a longstanding relationship with.”


Gore expressed optimism that enterprise uptake will accelerate now that more devices support CBRS. “There are hundreds of Band 48 devices now,” he said. “The adoption is starting to pick up. … It has to look, feel, deploy, cost and behave like Wi-Fi. When we get to that, then these networks will become ubiquitous.”