Editor’s Corner—Private wireless networks are quietly becoming a thing

Mike Dano

For years now, a number of wireless players have been promising that there is demand among enterprises and others for private wireless networks. The argument is that utilities, cities, manufacturing companies and others have specific applications that can’t or shouldn’t run over public wireless networks, and so they will need to build their own networks—and will spend money to do it.

Indeed, in its efforts to bolster this notion, Qualcomm has often pointed to a study from Harbor Research that predicts the private LTE network market could reach fully $17 billion by 2022. And Qualcomm isn’t alone: Companies selling the idea that private wireless is a big opportunity include Ligado, AT&T, Nokia and others.

However, while private Wi-Fi networks running on unlicensed spectrum are common, it has been difficult to find examples of enterprises and others building their own private networks using licensed spectrum and cellular equipment.

That, however, is starting to change.

For example, the Port of Los Angeles in 2016 inked an agreement with GE to test IoT technologies aimed at digitizing its operations, in order to better track the millions of shipments that pass through the port each year. And earlier this year, the port said it plans to expand that effort—and is urging the FCC to free up licensed 3.5 GHz spectrum so that it can fully build out a network covering its 7,500-acre complex.

Meantime, GE itself said it has used the 3.65 GHz band to develop WiMAX-powered networks that it sells to industrial and critical infrastructure customers. Indeed, the company said it has so far sold over 8,500 radios operating at hundreds of sites across the country, powering solutions including smart metering, utility substation automation, positive traction control for trains, oil and gas pipeline monitoring, wastewater management, heavy mining and other applications.

Separately, the Union Pacific Railroad Company said recently that it actually operates one of the largest private telecommunications networks in the United States in order to provide control and safety applications for its trains. The railroad’s network includes 1,100 microwave towers and more than 10,000 wayside sites.

Utility companies are also building networks. For example, the Salt River Project (SRP) in Arizona last year said it will use equipment from MiMOMax Wireless to build a network on the licensed 700 MHz spectrum it obtained from Access Spectrum in 2015.

Indeed, Access Spectrum itself offers perhaps the clearest look at the growing market for private networks. The company owns 700 MHz licenses covering roughly two thirds of the United States, and has been selling or leasing that spectrum to a variety of entities, mostly utility companies like Northwestern Energy in Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota, Portland General Electric in Oregon and Navopache Electric in Arizona, but also railroad companies like the California High Speed Rail Authority and oil and gas companies like Enterprise Products Petrochemical Company.

And Access Spectrum’s latest deal, announced last week, is perhaps the best indication so far of where the private wireless network sector is headed.

Specifically, Praxis Aerospace Concepts International (PACI) said it inked a long-term lease for Access Spectrum’s Upper 700 MHz A Block in remote locations in Nevada, Arizona and Utah. Jonathan Daniels, PACI’s CEO, said the company will use the spectrum to fly drones.

“I’m pretty excited,” Daniels said.

Turns out there’s some reason to be excited. The Federal Aviation Administration generally doesn’t allow drone pilots to fly the gadgets into places where they can’t see them. But Daniels said PACI is one of only a handful of companies that has obtained authorization from the FAA to conduct “non line of sight” flying, largely due to the company’s use of 700 MHz spectrum that won’t suffer from interference from other users. That means that PACI’s pilots will be able to install cameras on their drones and fly the drones by watching the real-time video (transmitted over PACI’s 700 MHz network) from the cameras.

“It gets us a longer string for our telephone,” Daniels said of the 700 MHz spectrum PACI is leasing from Access Spectrum. He said he expects the drones to be able to fly 30 to 50 miles using the system.

Daniels said PACI is already in the process of building a wireless network for its drone flights, and is considering LTE and other wireless network technologies. He declined to name the company’s equipment vendors. He added that PACI plans to use the drones to conduct power line and solar farm surveys in the areas, as well as to offer drone flying classes for aspiring pilots.

To be clear, these are just a few examples of the kind of private wireless networks using licensed spectrum that companies, cities, utilities and other entities might consider building. And this isn’t necessarily a new concept either – the government owns wide swathes of spectrum for private networks for military and other uses.

What is new though is the fact that wireless technology is becoming increasingly sophisticated—to the point that real-time flight footage from a drone can be broadcast to a remote pilot—and that wireless equipment is cheap enough for startups like PACI to purchase. What’s also new is that there’s an increasing amount of available, licensed spectrum to be had in locations around the country. Gone are the days when wireless operators bid billions of dollars in FCC auctions in order to span up any and all available licensed spectrum. Indeed, T-Mobile is now the only operator to show any interest in the agency’s latest 600 MHz spectrum auction.

However, a final question hanging over the private wireless network situation is whether LTE will become the de facto standard. It certainly benefits from economies of scale—LTE is used just about everywhere on Earth for smartphone service—but there may be less expensive options for some types of services. For example, a number of fixed wireless providers have eschewed LTE for Wi-Fi in part because the equipment costs much, much less.

Nonetheless, it’s slowly, quietly becoming clear that there’s growing demand for private wireless networks, many of which will need licensed spectrum and LTE. – Mike | @mikeddano

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