Alongside 5G, the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum has been one of the most interesting US market developments of recent years. With the CBRS priority access license (PAL) auction recently completed (though no winners have been announced yet) and the 271 participants set to spend $4.6bn to secure 91.1% of available licenses, some conclusions can be already drawn on the role of CBRS in a private network world.
How CBRS helps the private network market
CBRS brings spectrum, creates a wider market, and enables innovation. The rest of the world should look at CBRS as a giant-sized private network testbed to understand what works, what does not, and how spectrum liberalization can affect their plans and strategies.
CBRS is another option for private networks. If there is no spectrum, there is no private networks market. CBRS sits alongside Germany (3.7GHz band), Japan (28GHz, etc.), France (2.6GHz), the UK (3.8–4.2GHz, etc.), and many other countries in what is a clearly emerging trend of regulators looking to liberalize spectrum beyond the monopoly of communication service providers to support a diverse set of needs and customers.
CBRS provides a lot of spectrum – 150MHz in the 3.5GHz band, channeled through a three-tier system encompassing incumbent users, licensees (PAL), and free-to-use spectrum (general authorized access – GAA). As such, it opens up additional opportunities for enterprises to consider deploying private networks (LTE or 5G) in line with their needs of control, security, privacy, performance, and reliability. It allows enterprises to look at multiple providers of connectivity services, such as systems integrators (e.g., RF Connect), neutral-host distributed antenna system (DAS) providers (e.g., Boingo), or startups (e.g., Celona) to deliver on their dedicated cellular networks’ wishes.
CBRS is seeding a brave new world for private network offerings and partnerships. For example, Federated Wireless is offering connectivity as a service via AWS and Microsoft marketplaces, Motorola Solutions is combining the 900MHz and CBRS spectrum into its LTE offering, and Geoverse is partnering with Orion Labs to deliver communications to the enterprise workforce.
How CBRS hinders the private network market
Not every CBRS activity is necessarily useful for private networks, and the initiative could prove to be a missed chance to innovate well beyond legacy thinking. This can be observed by analyzing the participants in the PAL auction. While there is some enterprise and vertical interest – most notably from energy and utilities companies – 80% of qualified bidders belong to the telecom industry. Not all telecom companies have the same strategy, but it is fair to expect that most of them will use CBRS first to support their traditional business; for instance, via data offload, network densification, and fixed wireless access (FWA). Spectrum is being liberalized; however, we need to be careful not to rush to premature conclusions about CBRS as a means to fully disrupt the status quo. CBRS is an evolution not a revolution.
There is another subtle risk related to private networks and CBRS – market confusion. Communication service providers are blurring the lines of what is a private network to strengthen their traditional know-how and public network-centered enterprise business. This is not a critique of their strategy, since there are opportunities for both public and private network-based offerings. However, CBRS risks becoming just another blurry option among many other private networks’ flavors. This could lead to more noise and confusion in a market that is already lacking strict definitions, negatively affecting enterprises’ ability to understand what solution is best for their needs. This will be especially true for those industries that may not be familiar with cellular technology, and could potentially result in enterprises’ unfulfilled connectivity demands and technology mistrust.
For the market to deliver on its potential, enterprises need to have a clear idea of a private network, including what constitutes a private network, what benefits it delivers, and how it compares with other options.
LTE and 5G Private Network Tracker 2Q20, ENS001-000115 (August 2020)
LTE and 5G Private Network Tracker Report 2Q20, ENS001-000116 (August 2020)
Private Network Insights: Wired and Wireless LANs, ENS003-000052 (July 2020)
“COVID-19 in private networks,” ENS003-000048 (April 2020)
Pablo Tomasi, Principal Analyst, Private Networks, Workspace Services