Private wireless networks are quietly becoming a thing

Several wireless companies have promised for years now that a demand exists among enterprises and other entities for private wireless networks, writes FierceWireless editor Mike Dano.

The rationale for this promise is that entities like utility companies, cities and manufacturing companies have specific applications that are unable to or should not run over public wireless networks. Instead, they need to build their own networks, and will spend money to do so.

Qualcomm has referenced a Harbor Research study that forecasts the private LTE network market could ascend to $17 billion by 2022 to give the notion more credibility. Meanwhile, other companies have parroted Qualcomm’s belief that an opportunity with private wireless networks exists, including Ligado, AT&T and Nokia.

Private Wi-Fi networks running on unlicensed spectrum is nothing new, but examples of enterprises and others creating their own networks with unlicensed spectrum and cellular equipment are sparse, writes Dano. However, the tide is beginning to change.

As an example, in 2016 the Port of Los Angeles signed an agreement with General Electric (GE) to test Internet of Things (IoT) technologies aimed at digitizing its operations so it could track the millions of shipments that come through the port each year. The port stated earlier this year it wants to expand that effort and requested the FCC open licensed 3.5 GHz spectrum so it can fully build out a network that will cover its 7,500-acre complex.

GE stated it’s used the 3.65 GHz band to build WiMAX-powered networks that the company sells to industrial and critical infrastructure customers. To date, GE said it’s sold more than 8,500 radios that operate at hundreds of sites throughout the U.S. Some of the radio’s functions include powering smart metering, utility substation automation and oil and gas pipe monitoring.

Meanwhile, the Union Pacific Railroad Company recently stated it operates one of the biggest private telecommunications networks in the country so it can provide control and safety applications for its trains. There are 1,100 microwave towers and more than 10,000 wayside sites on the network.

Utility companies have also gotten in on the network building game. The Salt River Project (SRP) in Arizona said it would use MiMOMax Wireless equipment to create a network on the licensed 700 MHz spectrum it got from Access Spectrum in 2015.

Access Spectrum owns 700 MHz licenses that cover approximately two thirds of the US and has sold or least the spectrum to mainly utility companies and other entities. Some of Access’ customers include Northwestern Energy in Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota and Portland General Electric in Oregon. The California High Speed Rail Authority is one of Access’ non-utility consumers.

Access Spectrum also recently signed a long-term lease with Praxis Aerospace Concepts International (PACI).  The deal allows Praxis to lease Access’ Upper 700 MHz A block in remote locations in Nevada, Arizona and Utah. The company will use the spectrum to fly drones, according to PACI chief executive officer Jonathan Daniels.

“I’m pretty excited,” Daniels said.

Although the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn’t let drone pilots fly the devices into places where they can’t see them, PACI received authorization to conduct “non line of sight “ flying. It was able to get permission mainly because the company will use the 700 MHz spectrum that won’t be interfered with by other users. In other words, PACI pilots can put cameras on the drones and fly them by watching real-time video from those cameras. Everything will be transmitted over PACI’S 700 MHz network.

“It gets us a longer string for our telephone,” Daniels said of the 700 MHz spectrum PACI is leasing from Access Spectrum.

While Daniels stated PACI is currently building a wireless network for its drone flights and is considering LTE and other wireless network technologies, he didn’t name any of the company’s equipment vendors. The company will also use drones to conduct power line and solar farm surveys in the areas and offer drone-flying classes for aspiring pilots, according to Daniels.

As Dano writes, these are just a few examples of the type of private wireless networks using licensed spectrum that entities like cities, businesses and utility company may want to build, and the concept isn’t new. What is new however is wireless tech is becoming more sophisticated and wireless equipment is affordable enough that startup companies like PACI can buy it.

Another new trend is more licensed spectrum is becoming available around the country, and wireless operators no longer have to bid billions of dollars in FCC auctions to span up available licensed spectrum. The question that remains now is whether LTE will become the new standard—it’s used globally for smartphone service, but less expensive options might become available. Several wireless providers have chosen Wi-Fi over LTE because the equipment is more affordable.

Either way, it has become clear the demand for private wireless networks has grown significantly and lot of the will need licensed spectrum and LTE.

Learn more about Private Wireless Networks and CBRS here

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