Private Networks – The Front Lines Of Future Spectrum Management Battles

June 19, 2023

Written by Alex Lawrence

“We see Open RAN intersecting with private wireless and digital transformation needs to stimulate growth of what is really an entirely new market segment for ICT broadly, which is bringing 4G or 5G connectivity to the forefront of the enterprise solution set.”

Kurt Schaubach is at once a preacher and apostate of Open RAN. The CTO of Federated Wireless was chatting recently with 6GWorld about the intersection of enterprise private wireless and new approaches to spectrum.

So much for the orthodoxy. However, he pointed out that the approach to developing Open RAN was something alien to his private network clients. They are, instead,

“Much more interested in thinking about Open RAN from the application standpoint – looking at the application and then working backwards to ask “How would I instrument this or architect it with a particular collection of Open RAN vendors? Let’s put it together and then figure out what works, what doesn’t work and go about solving these problems.

“That will drive use cases, which then drives the application development community, which then helps solve some of these other more fundamental issues around things like interoperability and tests and certification and things like that.”

This approach stands in stark contrast to the more traditional telecoms mindset, which he characterises as ensuring all the technology pieces are worked out before commercialisation or application-specific discussions are worked through.

“Those are important but shouldn’t really be leading the market so much as following where the market wants to go.”

Spectrum Allocation and Automation

One of the key concerns with any private network is the question of spectrum allocation and sharing for enterprise or other geographically small-scale users. These aren’t necessarily all in high-frequency spectrum either. Schaubach mentioned a case he heard of a company using 450MHz to support manned and unmanned drone applications.

“By comparison to the CBRS band that we’re working in today, this narrow allocation of spectrum is completely licensed. So they are the primary licensee of the spectrum and they are looking at ways to automate assignment of the spectrum to support different drone missions.”

This is a striking example of some different approaches to managing spectrum scarcity. While the USA has some bands for spectrum sharing, globally there has been a huge investment in auctioned, licensed spectrum which can’t simply be opened up for sharing. Assignment of spectrum by licensees to others, if it’s made easy, could be a way to make mobile services of all sorts much more straightforward to develop. Schaubach is very keen on that ‘if it’s made easy’ part.

“You need a reservation system to allocate and reallocate the spectrum,” he pointed out. “It’s sharing technology applied to a spectrum band where there is one exclusive-use licensee, offering the ability for them to create a different use model around spectrum, based on the same fundamentals we’ve developed for CBRS.”

While this would be a form of spectrum sharing, it would need to work very differently from the CBRS-style sharing we see in the USA. Federated is looking into the details of how to automate something like this at the moment.

“You could, through APIs, gain access to spectrum, report your use, get all of the requisite information on file with the regulator and do it in real time,” Shaubach noted. “This notion of automation is something that we’ve been pushing on with regulators around the globe.”

It may be needed, too. There is certainly pent-up demand. “In Europe and parts of Asia, there is what you might call a local-area licensing regime that regulators are using for things like energising their industrial base, bringing digital transformation or broader private wireless applications. In the UK, it’s the 38-to-42Ghz band, for example, and those licenses are being issued through the regulator.”

The manual process today seems painful, though. It’s hard to see this taking off en masse: “Submit a paper application with the regulator, wait an indeterminate period of time, hope that your application gets approved and you’re off to the next stage.” 

Alongside this, Shaubach points out that there are some signs that more shared spectrum may become available globally, particularly in the 6GHz band, often used today for point-to-point or backhaul services.

“In the US, that band is being opened up for sharing between incumbent users – largely commercial, some public safety and government users but largely commercial – and new unlicensed Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi 6e in the US as well as 5G unlicensed will occupy that band in the US.”

While the USA has tended to lead the charge on spectrum sharing, this is not necessarily the case with 6GHz spectrum.

“Since it’s aligned globally, there is a bit of a global trend occurring, “ Shaubach noted.

“In Canada, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Europe, there’s a very active debate ongoing around what is the future state of the 6GHz band and will there be some form of sharing? So there are specific bands globally that are being looked at where there’s a need for some global harmonisation with what’s occurring in the US.”

There is, of course, another element to this spectrum sharing, which works between terrestrial and satellite services. Especially with LEOsats starting to offer direct-to-handset services, there is a new impetus both to enable and manage spectrum across these fields. With governments globally pushing for coverage as a key element of 6G, managing spectrum sharing is only likely to become a more significant discussion.

“There will be a need to coordinate both the terrestrial and satellite uses in a way that those services can be provided on a non-interfering basis,” Shaubach pointed out.

“So there might even be some more advanced forms of sharing that get built into the specifications or standards moving forward.”

Systems for new forms of spectrum management and sharing may even help MNOs, in time. 

“There are tremendous opportunities to automate access to spectrum as they think about deploying private wireless. Traditionally we have solved the problem of indoor coverage with systems like DAS, and through very complex capabilities built into the RAN stack itself, like inter-cell interference cancellation.”

Shaubach isn’t going into detail yet, but simplifying those capabilities for MNOs is certainly on the horizon.

Boosting Private Wireless

Federated Wireless is known for its private network provision. 6GWorld couldn’t resist asking how that’s going, given previous conversations which suggest many companies just don’t ‘get’ what private 5G is or what the value of it could be. 

“It’s new enough that we are still in a phase of some education of the market being required,” Schaubach conceded. However, things are changing.

“We actually see customers coming to us with specific use cases today. They’re aware of private wireless, they’re aware of a particular business need or pain point that current connectivity solutions cannot solve. They’ve heard enough around private wireless to make the connection to believe that maybe a 5G private network could solve that problem.”

Indoors the use cases tend to focus on manufacturing, logistics and warehouse operations.

“Those use cases are unique because they’re in-building and require very robust connectivity that can handle robotics. There are other things, like AR/VR applications, but largely robotics to date as well as things like inventory management tools, bar code scanners, tablets, laptops. That’s connectivity in environments that are very harsh from an RF perspective because there’s lots of metal and concrete.”

Outdoor private 5G is also gathering interest. Schaubach cites recent clients in the forestry industry, who “Have tractors and other forestry equipment in very remote locations that we need to provide connectivity for, to do monitoring of the equipment itself, address preventative maintenance needs for the equipment, handle other communication and logistical needs.”

However, while there is a slow growth in interest and adoption, it’s not at the inflection point yet; this is where much greater work on automation, in spectrum management and other elements, will really take off. 

“Today five G presents tremendous opportunity for the enterprise. In order for this to really scale to very broad market adoption, it needs to get to a level of simplicity that Wi-Fi has been able to achieve, where things are truly plug-and-play and there’s very little know-how required.”

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