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

Monica Alleven

There was a lot of fanfare this month around the initial commercial deployment (ICD) phase of the Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) band at 3.5 GHz, and deservedly so. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) gave the green light for commercial services to be deployed, and for all intents and purposes, the industry is off and running.  

But, how long is it going to take for everyone to know whether this great “experiment,” as some still call it, will take off and lead to great success? FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, the FCC’s point person on the band the past couple years or so, was asked that very question last week after the FCC voted to issue a public notice kicking off a public comment period on proposed rules for auctioning the licensed portion of the band, commonly referred to as Priority Access Licenses (PALs). That auction is set to get underway next June.

“My conversations with those that are on the industry side of the equation have been going gangbusters,” O’Rielly told reporters. “They’re really excited on what they’re able to do.” He declined to give a “full picture” because everything is in the General Authorized Access (GAA) phase and it’s still early. “It’s going to take time,” but every indication so far points to great excitement on the part of stakeholders that expect to use the band and/or supply equipment for it.

That’s pretty much how it’s been for this band from the get-go. Granted, there’s still a big question mark as to how innovative it’s going to be compared to where it started—O’Rielly led the effort to change the rules from what was originally adopted by the Tom Wheeler-run commission back in 2015. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said last week that the U.S. “lost our nerve and reverted back to the old” way of doing things.  

Where’s the market?

Since the CBRS Alliance held its celebratory event shortly after the FCC granted Initial Commercial Deployment (ICD) status to five Spectrum Access System (SAS) administrators, I’ve been wondering where these initial deployments are going to happen: indoors, like the big private enterprises we’ve been hearing about, or outdoors, where wireless operators and cable companies can use it to add capacity or last-mile links.

Turns out, the answer is not that simple. It’s also, as analyst Iain Gillott of iGR points out, a little about “it depends what you’re selling.” If you’re selling indoor gear, that’s where you see the opportunities. If it’s outdoor equipment you’re selling, that’s where the market lies. If you’re into both, then it’s both indoor and outdoor. And, remember: A venue looking to deploy a private LTE network could be both—an airport might want to use a private LTE network on the tarmac; a shipping port may want to use it on the docks.

Federated Wireless, one of the five companies approved as a SAS administrator, analyzed its ICD implementations, and based on thousands of sites, it shared the following breakdown: 47% indoor and 53% outdoor.  

With that said, a Federated spokesperson added that these numbers reflect early deployments for (outdoor) network densification and rural fixed wireless, but the findings also reflect the fact that (indoor) enterprise deployments, including private LTE, are starting strong.   

Amdocs, another company approved for SAS administration, didn’t share percentage breakdowns, but also expects a mix. “A big near-term opportunity is going to be small/campus private networks, which will be a mix of indoor and outdoor CBSDs,” said Yogen Patel of Amdocs, referring to Citizens Broadband Service Devices. “Indoor will probably be more relevant and higher-volume right off the bat. But, outdoor use cases will start happening as well, and eventually catch up.” 

RELATED: A year in, what’s happening with Google, Verizon, Nokia and the 3.5 GHz CBRS band?

Early in the development of the CBRS band, indoor enterprise installations of LTE were offered as examples of prime locations for the technology to be rolled out. It turns out, that’s still the case. But for wireless operators, it’s the outdoor environments that are expected to be of primary interest.  

Earl Lum, president, EJL Wireless Research, said there will be some indoor CBRS deployment, but 90%+ of it will be outdoors.

Enterprises that want private LTE networks, like campuses, casinos and carpeted offices, will purchase phones enabled with CBRS for their employees. However, U.S. wireless carriers and cable companies primarily will deploy small cells outdoors.

That’s in part because very few people are going to be using the phones that support CBRS Band 48 in them. At the rate consumers are replacing their existing handsets, it’s going to be several years before a sizable number of people are using phones enabled with CBRS, although there are quite a few devices on the market, including the latest version of the iPhone.

According to Kyung Mun of Mobile Experts, the initial CBRS small cell shipments and market value will be outdoor deployments, driven by fixed wireless access and mobility offload applications. 

“The indoor deployments around private LTE applications and enterprise mobility will take a few years to reach a meaningful significance as CBRS-capable handsets penetrate the mass market – that probably would take 2-3 years,” Mun said. “In the meantime, there are a lot of excitements around private LTE applications among many verticals.” 

CBRS Alliance members talk about how enterprises can use the CBRS band to create their own private LTE networks—ones they usually say will complement the Wi-Fi in these venues as opposed to replacing it. Wi-Fi, including Wi-Fi 6, probably will be more affordable in the near term, but if the enterprise needs a mobility component, they’ll go with LTE.

In a lot of cases, the deployment will depend on who has control of the real estate, said industry analyst Monica Paolini, president of Senza Fili. In the case of a stadium or a mall, the manager of the space can decide whose infrastructure—an operator's or other’s—is allowed inside the building.

Initially, the IoT market will be of interest to the enterprise sector. “The use of CBRS in private networks for IoT and enterprise-specific applications is where we’re going to see most of the innovation, disruption and new business models,” she said. This is not the only area, but it will be one of the more interesting ones because of the sheer potential it offers.

Interestingly, a relatively new startup, Celona, was formed in large part to address needs in the enterprise space that its founders didn’t think were being adequately addressed by either cellular operators or the Wi-Fi community.

“We absolutely think CBRS will be used both outdoors and indoors,” said Celona CEO Rajeev Shah, who just announced a Series A round of financing.

RELATED: Editor’s Note—CBRS closes in on prime time

The physical characteristics of the CBRS spectrum at 3.5 GHz are well suited for indoors, and the way the policy rules were written make it very friendly for enterprises to use inside, he said. The challenges associated with scale are more on the operational side as opposed to the radio, he said. On the radio side of things, the small cell architecture is very well suited for indoor enterprise deployments.

Celona wants to tackle some of the challenges inhibiting in-building/indoor use cases. “Our opinion is we are kind of at this cusp of a new class of applications emerging in the enterprise,” Shah said. “We think that we are moving from the majority of apps today being cloud-based,” accessed over a UI like on a phone or laptop, to a new generation of apps.

“Every single enterprise is transforming their business operations using new applications … but the challenge with that is the link between the network edge and the device edge is now starting to be really challenged” from a predictability, reliability and latency perspective, and that’s where the demand for LTE is new, he said. The need so far has been to extend the macro network in buildings, which makes sense in malls and casinos but not necessarily for every building out there.

Indeed, the CBRS space opens a whole new way of deploying wireless, and it has a path forward with 5G specs in the works. It will most certainly be a game changer. Pioneers in the space cite pent-up demand coming from all kinds of areas: mobile and cable operators, enterprises, Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs). The question for the foreseeable future will be: How big a game changer is CBRS? — Monica @malleven33

Editor's Corners are opinion columns written by a member of the Fierce editorial team. They are edited for balance and accuracy.