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The Future of High-Performance Networks

New networks promise growth for business and
disruption for the traditional wireless carrier model

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We’ve been speaking professionally about pervasive computing and the Internet of Things since the late 1990s when most people in business had no idea what we were talking about. Now everybody knows what we’re talking about, and many companies are trying to take part in it, but “giving the world a digital nervous system” has turned out to be remarkably difficult. If corporate IP battles and geopolitics don’t bring you to your knees, the most basic technical issues will—for example, achieving secure, reliable, customizable, affordable wireless connectivity for devices. Just ask anyone caught between the performance failures of WiFi and the onerous per-bit cellular rates of the major carriers.

But the great virtue of technology problems is that sooner or later they all come out in the wash. Today, connecting things to other things and having them work as planned, and not going broke in the process, is almost solved at last. One solution gaining traction is “Private LTE,” which means a private cellular network delivered on shared spectrum (as opposed to the licensed cellular spectrum that carriers use), and configurable for everything from simple sensor data to high-performance video.

Because wireless spectrum is a finite physical resource, the political solution had to precede the technical one in this case. Advisors and corporate consortia evangelized the idea for a few years, and then governmental agencies allocated the spectrum to make it possible. In the U.S., the new wireless voice and data service is called Citizens Broadband Radio System (CBRS), located at 3.5GHz. In Europe and globally, it’s at unlicensed 5GHz and can be accessed through MulteFire.

Private LTE’s key features translate into direct benefits for the digital enterprise:

» Quality of service and predictable latency, configurable in software

» Seamless mobility to support service continuity between small cells and other networks

» The ability to roam between private and public networks

» Efficient co-existence with other spectrum users such as Wi-Fi

» LTE performance in terms of capacity and throughput reaching between 2-4 times that of 802.11ac, yielding superior payloads than Wi-Fi

» Fewer required nodes while supporting enhanced interference management capabilities, thereby reducing costs with a greater network footprint per access point

» Low cost of deployment and integration because spectrum license and operator contracts are not required

» The simplicity of deployment, analogous to Wi-Fi, in unlicensed spectrum allows support of any device without an operator or, in some cases, without a SIM card

Thanks to WiFi’s incurable performance and security failings, and the cost of commercial cellular service, “LTE performance with WiFi simplicity” is an idea whose time has come, but it didn’t originate with the cellular carriers. The advisors who advocated for CBRS in the U.S. came from tech companies like Google, Qualcomm, Intel, Cisco, Nokia, and Ericsson. For MulteFire, the founding members included most of the same players (minus Google), along with Huawei, Softbank, Boingo and CableLabs. Yes, the largest mobile providers are members of these alliances, but they’re not the leaders. Why not? Apparently, the opportunity to deal in private connectivity for organizations at a fraction of the cost of commercial LTE service was not an alluring proposition for the carriers, and so they chose to stick with their traditional, lucrative business-model.

They may quickly come to regret this decision, because Private LTE has the potential to become a huge source of disruption for them.

For this disruption of the carriers’ position to occur, however, a robust ecosystem needs to develop around Private LTE. As of this writing, the shared spectrum for CBRS is still not technically available in the U.S., though it’s anticipated for the third quarter of 2019. Qualcomm has created a CBRS chipset that at least two domestic vendors, Ruckus Networks (now part of CommScope) and Cradlepoint, have built into indoor and outdoor access points, with accompanying cloud-management services. And Expeto is extolling its Platform as a Service environment that provides a “single pane of glass” interface to any Private LTE network, an offering targeted at enterprises who want a simple way to manage both enterprise and operational networks.

These announcements point to a much-anticipated future for connected things, but no one would argue that the necessary ecosystem exists yet. However, if Private LTE—and ultimately its 5G progeny—continues to evolve, it will finally break the lock that wireless carriers have had on utilizing cellular in mission-critical smart systems applications. Industry is poised to leap on it. “Connectivity is more than 50% of the cost of Industrial IoT solutions,” noted Jennine Sullivan of GE Ventures. “For our industries, OnGo [the trade-name of the CBRS Alliance] plays a crucial role in fostering growth.”

Beyond the reduced cost of secure connectivity, Private LTE also offers the promise of managing diverse networks that do everything companies need simultaneously, even in operationally intensive environments—from low-power, low-bit-rate sensors to business-critical functions like control of autonomous vehicles, voice communication, or high-performance video. This is possible because hybrid networks can be “sliced” (configured) via software, which leads to much more pervasive network integration for all connected things.

The key architects of this new Private LTE ecosystem will need to understand how to create whole new markets by enabling three critical dimensions: 1) platforms that address the needs of sub-markets with customization; 2) broad product portfolios that include a wide variety of processing, connectivity, security, and interoperability capabilities; and 3) diverse alliances and partnerships to enable a wide range of capabilities—including network management, software development tools, and vertical application solutions, among others.

One of the most compelling opportunities Private LTE enables is the expansion of wireless cellular into new mission-critical markets that cellular has not addressed in the past because the traditional carrier business model has been all about maintaining control of the network and its use.  Most of these new mission critical applications require a new network management and service delivery model that shifts control of the network to a “neutral host” model where end customers and domain-focused players can deploy and leverage wireless in new applications.  Breaking the wireless carrier business model will allow this expansion to occur.

Realizing the potential of new markets will also require the formation of new ecosystems where innovation will be driven by a collaborative community—from customers, from partners, and from their own people. To do this, they’ll need to:

Target the Highest Value Customer Applications. Utilizing higher performance and more reliable Private LTE networking technology to address diverse mission critical and industrial segments will open up many new applications where wireless use has been inhibited.  Focusing on the right opportunities with the right partners will be a critical success factor.   

Understand the Entire End-to-End Customer Experience. Companies often fail to develop networking solutions focused on the right capabilities and benefits because they don’t have a good understanding of what users and customers are trying to achieve and how they want to achieve it. Players can increase their chances of success by understanding the unique wireless networking requirements (i.e. performance, reliability, latency, managed services, etc.) in new applications such as safety-critical real time location systems.  

Look for Non-Conflicting Business Models That Encourage Collaboration. Collaborative ecosystems are coalitions of self-motivated market participants that pursue a common goal, not mere subcontractors tied to a “command and control” scheme. Successful market development for new privately managed wireless networks will depend upon understanding and choosing new or modified business models. As control of these networks shifts to more neutral hosts, many new and novel managed services business models could and should emerge.

Build Open Collaboration / Align Partner Behaviors. Seemingly superior offerings can also fail because ecosystem partners have no incentive to participate. The customer is buying an experience with a desired result, and the ecosystem partners must work in concert to create a superior experience that provides tangible benefits to all participants. Successful ecosystems are usually composed of proactive participants, not simply a group of companies in and around a particular market space. Accordingly, a community’s design needs to allow participants to invest resources and reap rewards—indeed, to innovate openly with one another—while pursuing individual interests.

Act Early, Act Often. Assembling a collaborative ecosystem calls for a balance of timing and participants. Most collaborative opportunities will fail and re-form as learning grows. These communities do not necessarily have a finite window but they need to be initiated early and gain momentum before a competitive ecosystem emerges in its place.

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