Connectivity has been the main blocker for industrial IoT, and not the fragmented hardware and software markets. So says Federated Wireless, one of the companies pioneering usage of private LTE and 5G in the CBRS band in the US.
The firm has announced “one-click” CBRS-as-a-service availability via AWS and Microsoft Azure, and trumpeted its “overnight” momentum, as enterprises, carriers, and cable companies pile into the CBRS band. The company has also confirmed it will white-label its private-networking as-a-service offer to operators, cable companies, and IoT providers.
The company claims to have 35 customers and 2,000-odd cell sites in the CBRS band, with 40 private LTE networks in deployment and 100 more “in the pipeline”, with new cell sites lighting up at a rate of about 100 per day.
But the easy availability of private and shared spectrum for enterprise LTE networks is new; the promise of industrial revolution, sprung from cheap compute and clever analytics, has stuttered and spluttered until now. And the malaise is down to a failure of connectivity.
Federated Wireless, presenting a cure-all CBRS enablement platform, reckons enterprises have experimented already with IoT hardware and software, and been bruised by the experience. Enterprise Wi-Fi has failed to deliver, and private cellular has failed to materialize, it says.
The solutions themselves, curated for enterprises on well-oiled cloud platforms, work well, on paper. But the failure of enterprise Wi-Fi and the lack of private LTE has rendered them as best-effort experiments, rather than industrial-grade proofs.
It means digital change has been hard to scale for enterprises, and hard to sell for carriers and cable companies. “It is incredible, because the software and IoT models have been more advanced than the connectivity. You don’t usually see it that way around,” says Iyad Tarazi, chief executive at Federated Wireless.
“There is huge frustration among enterprises. They see the ambition of automating processes and machines using private industrial networks, but they haven’t really been able to because the connectivity model hasn’t been there.”
The rest of it has been made easy, says Tarazi, relaying an anecdote about a workshop at AWS re:Invent in late 2018, where the Federated Wireless team instructed a group of novices on how to train a machine learning algorithm on a camera. “It took an hour. These capabilities exist; the problem is finding the connectivity to go with them.”
That changes with his company’s integration of spectrum licensing, network building, and operations support into AWS and Azure, he says.
The regulatory rigmarole and hardware supply around CBRS-based private cellular can be set in motion with a single click inside their IoT marketplaces, and also bundled with bigger IoT orders, whether for simple sensors, analytics tools, and compute allocations, or for integrated manufacturing and security systems.
Vendors have the solutions, already, and enterprises have the know-how, says Tarazi; the Federated Wireless model, providing spectrum and support, makes networking an easy bolt-on to these, whether for operators in-filling coverage blackspots and not-spots, or for enterprises rolling out in-building sensor solutions for process optimization and machine automation.
Tarazi explains: “Enterprises are being trained [in IoT] on Wi-Fi, because it has an ownership and control model that fits with IT departments. But they end up frustrated with it – with its lack of determinism, elasticity, predictability. Wi-Fi is completely opportunistic.
“And then on the cellular side, there are lots of models for in-building enterprise deployments. But they are like all-things-to-all-people – where the architecture is designed to integrate with the carrier network, and to support the latest of handsets.
“What is missing is a really simple carrier model – a one-application network, for enterprises to be able to deploy IoT use cases quickly. A carrier model just for cameras, say – where the enterprise can decide later whether to use it for handsets, because that is not even a focus today.”
The point is Wi-Fi (in any form, he says) does not work for high-end Industry 4.0 mechanics (“for heavy IoT for industrial automation, or for security, or digital signage”), and private cellular (which does, the story goes) has been out of reach of enterprises, accustomed to as-a-service purchases from big cloud providers.
Tarazi says: “They are focused on, and familiar with, purchasing compute and storage, and all kinds of IoT solutions, directly through hyper-scaler marketplaces. They want the cameras, and they want ways to process data, and they want something in the middle to make it happen – they want to be able to get connectivity in the same way – so it just happens.”
Connectivity should not be the point of debate, for enterprises installing complex IoT systems, he says. “People that want cameras don’t want to talk about anything else.”
He adds: “That’s the niche we’re trying to support – and not because we’re smarter, or looking for more pain in our lives. But because ours is a new spectrum model, built for private networks – where anyone can, in under a second, get spectrum of their own, under their own control, and build their own very deterministic network.”
Federated Wireless expects enterprises to take activate 50 per cent of spectrum licences in CBRS spectrum in the US during the next 12-24 months, with carriers taking a 20 per cent share of CBRS business, and cable companies taking the remaining 30 per cent.
Tarazi won’t make forecasts about the enterprise split, between candidates in manufacturing, warehousing, cities, utilities, and other verticals. “It’s too early to tell,” he says. But about 75 per cent of CBRS coverage will go on outdoor infill, split evenly between urban and rural areas, and 25 per cent will go on indoor venues, he suggests
Generally, these are loose estimates, he says. “All segments are participating now to get started and it is too early to draw [firm] conclusions.” As above, the company is filling the CBRS band with new life, with 100-odd cell sites going live each day.
“The momentum is incredible. It has taken five years to get this – to momentum overnight. But it took five years of hard work beforehand – of studies, and field trials, and investment. Sometimes carrier trials have lasted three or four years. Everyone in the industry has kicked the tyres on us,” he says.
Federated Wireless is leading the charge on CBRS, it says, as the interface with the Federal Communications Commission on licensing, and with the telecoms ecosystem on kit supply and management.
The company has invested $120 million to date, and claims 50-60 per cent market share in terms of CBRS deployments. “We are the only one with a full product. That is all we do,” he comments.
The company has created a “massive sensor network”, offering ‘environmental sensing capability’ (ESC), along both sides of the US coast to keep the US Navy, the priority incumbent in the CBRS band, “comfortable”; it has developed a network operations centre (NOC) and operations system – “on gen-three of the software” – to generate coverage ‘heat maps’ and watch for interference, and offer 6x9s reliability and operations support.
But the 150MHz-wide CBRS band affords space for everyone, says Tarazi. It is equivalent to all the licensed spectrum outside of mmWave the likes of AT&T hold, and twice the spectrum in the 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi band. “And it is virtually empty or being emptied out.”
“An enterprises will get as much as 100 MHz-plus, in our simulations, in about 90 per cent of the locations, especially if it is indoor – in warehouses, factories, or retail, or any of that. Outdoor, over time, the expectation is closer to 40-50 MHz for large enterprises.”
The spectrum-as-a-service model, pioneered by Federated Wireless, will be copied everywhere, he says. The company, itself, will offer the service abroad, and in every market as a white-label service for carriers seeking to engage with enterprises and IoT providers seeking to wrap-in connectivity.
Tarazi says the model makes large-scale allocations of spectrum to enterprises more effective. He references the liberalization of spectrum in Europe, and in Germany in particular, where national regulators are in the process of divvying out spectrum licences for private industrial usage.
“We are taking what Germany has done, and automating it, which will make spectrum more accessible, and deployments 10 times more abundant… We expected the next wave of regulators to say, ‘we want a system to automate these private networks, and to automate the regulatory process around them’. And we would be the right choice for that.”
He says: “It used to be you had a discussion about private networks for warehouse automation or for a bar-coding system, and the solution looked great, and the enterprise wanted to move ahead with it. But the conversation would then get onto spectrum, and you’d lose the sale in five minutes.
“With this, it’s no problem; we can make it happen. We’ll work with partners to remove all the friction, and craziness in the background. And as the system scales, and becomes more automated, we will white-label it too, so carriers and cable companies and equipment makers – companies with scale way beyond us – can take it to market en masse.”