Industry Voices — Owen: Device availability is key to private networks in unlicensed spectrum

Industry Voices Gareth Owen

Private LTE networks were once the preserve of mobile operators with licensed spectrum. But the barriers to the adoption of private LTE networks are falling rapidly. The availability of end-to-end, plug-and-play LTE network solutions coupled with the emergence of new unlicensed spectrum bands, will be an industry game changer and will embolden commercial and industrial enterprises to invest in private LTE networks, thus bypassing mobile operators.

At present, most industrial and commercial enterprises use a mix of open/proprietary wireless and wired communications technologies to connect machines and people. LTE, a mature, standards-based technology, enables enterprises to reduce deployment and operational costs and avoid vendor lock-in in both infrastructure and devices while at the same time offering the benefits of a higher degree of control, data security and reliability compared to public networks run by the MNOs. However, some users with very specific IoT/IIoT requirements may need to continue to use proprietary equipment.

Counterpoint Research believes that many of the largest enterprises and industrial companies will acquire their own spectrum and build and manage their own networks. Others will partner with a new breed of independent vertical-focused cellular network operators with spectrum access, whilst the remainder will use established MNOs. Early adopters are likely to be the largest corporations with deep pockets and a compelling business case.

CBRS in the US, MulteFire elsewhere

In the US, limited commercial services based on LTE private networks were launched in the 3.5 MHz Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) band in September 2019 and will enable a wide range of companies – from cable operators and wireless/fixed telecom operators to a host of commercial and industrial enterprises to build their own wireless networks without the involvement of the Big 4 operators. Companies eying opportunities in this band include Amazon, Google, Motorola, Nokia as well as many industrial companies looking to use the spectrum to build LTE and later 5G private networks for IoT, Industrial IoT and other applications.

RELATED: Nokia touts more than 120 private LTE network deployments

Outside the US, the LTE-based MulteFire standard with its “Listen-Before-Talk” feature will be a critical enabler allowing enterprises to deploy LTE private networks without the involvement of an MNO in unlicensed regional and global spectrum bands around the world. These include the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands and the 800/900 MHz and 1.9 MHz regional bands. With its standalone feature, MulteFire will open up unlicensed spectrum to a host of new players, including wireless ISPs, general enterprises, specialist vertical-focused MNOs, etc.

Wide Range of Devices in Multiple Form Factors Required

For many IoT enterprise and IIoT industrial applications, however, success will depend on the availability of devices. Vendor support from chipset, module and end user devices will be crucial for the success of both CBRS and MulteFire. Vendors will need to offer a wide range of LTE-based CBRS and MulteFire devices in multiple form factors, for example, for indoor and outdoor usage, high-density and rural environments, public and private networks, etc. These will also include a range of smartphone and tablet devices.

LTE devices and equipment need to be modified to work in the 3.5 GHz CBRS band and must be certified to meet the CBRS-specific requirements. A number of modules, modems, routers and consumer premises equipment are already available including numerous smartphones such as the Apple iPhone 11s, Samsung Galaxy 10 series smartphones and devices from LG, Motorola and OnePlus.

RELATED: MulteFire Alliance completes new specification optimized for IoT

Lagging behind CBRS, the MulteFire Alliance announced German company DEKRA as its first product certification company for the 1.9 GHz band in Japan last month, which will ensue co-existence with DECT and PHS systems operating in the same band.

However, chipsets for the 5 GHz band are not expected to become available until the end of 2019 with devices expected to be launched in 1H 2020. The first devices are likely to be IoT devices, gateways and ruggedized tablets followed in time by smartphones. Chipsets for the 900 MHz and 2.4 MHz bands are expected to become available later. In time, it is likely that dual-tech CBRS/MulteFire devices will be introduced which will enable the same devices to be used across US, Europe and Asia thus accelerating adoption of both CBRS and MulteFire.

5G Private Networks

In the case of 5G private networks, most enterprises and MNOs are in a fact-finding mode as knowledge about implementing 5G private networks is limited. It is likely that solutions will develop through trial and collaboration and MNOs and others need to learn about the best solution for their customers. For some enterprises, a 5G network slice from an established MNO may be an alternative option.

The 3GPP is working on adapting the 5G NR standard to be used in unlicensed spectrum by adding LBT to the NR specification which will become part of the 3GPP’s Release 16 specification due to be published in 2020. In its upcoming third release, expected to be published in 4Q 2019, the CBRS Alliance will add support for 5G and 5G shared spectrum services are expected to begin in the US around mid-2020.

Most Compelling Use Cases

Some of the most compelling applications of LTE/5G private networks are in the manufacturing, logistics (container ports, warehouses, etc.) and mining sectors where companies are struggling to use Wi-Fi and other technologies to address their requirements. Examples of recent deployments include:
•    Kalmar, part of CargoTec, together with Finish network provider Ukkoverkot and Nokia are developing a 5G-ready private LTE network at the port of HaminaKotka near Helsinki, which will enable low latency positioning and control of unmanned container-carrying vehicles and remotely operated cranes in real time.
•    German electric microcar company e.GO is working with Ericsson to deploy a 5G private network at its main assembly plant, where automated guided vehicles are used to replace the traditional assembly line to move vehicles from station to station.

Gareth Owen is an Associate Research Director at Counterpoint Research. Based in the UK, he leads Counterpoint’s Emerging Technologies Opportunities service which has a major focus on various aspects of 5G and AI. He has been a technology analyst for over 20 years and has complied research reports and market share/forecast studies on a range of topics, including wireless technologies, AI & computing, automotive, smartphone hardware, sensors and semiconductors, digital broadcasting and satellite communications.

"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of the editorial board.