Private CBRS networks seen as a good fit for factories

Now that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has made CBRS spectrum available for commercial use, manufacturers are looking at ways to use LTE in factories. Wireless technology can enable robotics and factory automation, and CBRS is seen as a good fit because the 3550 - 3700 MHz bands are well-suited for campus-wide connectivity and because many factories are isolated enough to have the spectrum to themselves. The FCC's rules allow general authorized access (GAA) to CBRS spectrum, meaning that users can operate networks without a license as long as they don't interfere with a licensed user.

“In the context of manufacturing, CBRS is very relevant for a production line or a factory floor, and in fact the biggest priority we see for manufacturing is certainly automotive manufacturing,” said Dimitris Mavrakis, research director for telco networks at ABI Research. “They require reconfigurable production lines, so equipment on the factory floor needs some mobility.” ABI Research and Nokia recently surveyed 600 manufacturers, and according to Mavrakis, the highest level of interest in CBRS is in the automotive industry, followed by the aerospace industry. Mavrakis said automakers are currently involved in active nonpublic discussions about CBRS private networks.

5G Americas President Chris Pearson said manufacturing stands out as a good candidate for CBRS, but notes that factories will have a number of other choices as they transition from wired to wireless connectivity.

“If I’m a manufacturer and I want to move away from cables… will I move to CBRS or will I be moving to a 5G network slice… that’s very possible…. or will I look at something else - Wi-Fi 6 for example?” said Pearson.

CBRS now will support 5G, but unless manufacturers deploy CBRS with a carrier partner, they could end up trying to host their own network on-site. 

“There’s tremendous interest in private wireless, but they still see it as somewhat complex and that’s why we are trying to simplify that for them,”  said Kurt Schaubach, CTO of Federated Wireless, which is one of the companies certified to manage CBRS spectrum. Federated recently launched “connectivity-as-a-service” to give enterprise customers a turnkey CBRS solution that will not require them to build and manage their own networks. 

If CBRS takes hold in the manufacturing industry, makers of robots and other factory equipment could start adding CBRS radios to their devices. Until then, manufacturers will need gateways to connect CBSDs to factory equipment. According to CommScope, another company certified to manage CBRS spectrum, there are already 10 routers, gateways and “bridges” certified for CBRS. A number of these have Ethernet ports, which would be key in many factory settings.

“It is an interim solution until those [factory] devices actually have CBRS radios in them,” said CommScope’s Juan Santiago, who heads up the company’s Ruckus CBRS business. “The critical part of being able to address these vertical industries is the devices; they’ve got to have the right devices.”

In time, manufacturers may push their suppliers to include CBRS radios because they want to combine cellular network reliability with enterprise control.

“Manufacturing typically is in a sort of indoor environment, and it’s only one company, one building so they can pretty much control the spectrum, so it’s very powerful,” said analyst Monica Paolini, principal at Senza Fili. “So even though they don’t have to pay for it and might not have a license, they’re still able to rely on that.” 

Richard Bernhardt, CMO of the Wireless Innovation Forum (WINN Forum), agrees that manufacturers will be attracted to the private CBRS network model. “The benefit of this band is that if you want an isolated network with your own SIMS and your own validation that only your own people can communicate with, it gives you the opportunity to do that,” he said. “If you look at a large industrial or manufacturing use, that has real benefits because you can keep all of the information contained within your operation.”

Some factories could start with CBRS for secure internal communication, and then use it to automate factory equipment later when more CBRS devices are available. The CBRS Alliance notes that Industry 4.0 will include connected workers, or employees who carry devices connected to a private wireless network. 

Paolini explained that wireless networks enable managers to quickly reconfigure a factory floor through real-time communication with workers. She said LTE is a better fit here than Wi-Fi because it offers more reliability, more control and lower latency.

LTE is also better at radio handoffs than Wi-Fi, analysts say. “When it comes to mobility LTE still has a leg up on Wi-Fi,” said analyst Chris DePuy of The 650 Group. “So if manufacturing has a significant element of mobility, CBRS and LTE are going to win, hands down.”