Some new technology innovations shake things up all on their own. Others only reach their potential once an ecosystem has developed around them – and ecosystems are notoriously hard to cultivate. It’s a testament to the potential of private wireless networks then that the telecommunications sector has already fully bought in. Just five years ago, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) gave the green light to private wireless by opening up the shared spectrum model with Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS). Today, major stakeholders across the industry – chipmakers, handset vendors, telecoms, cloud providers, and many others – have not merely signaled support for private wireless, they’ve actually implemented it. And the future looks bright.
What’s so special about private wireless technology? Why has practically every key player in digital telecommunications adopted it, in record time? And what can we expect now that they have? Let’s take a closer look.
When the FCC released part of the 3.5-GHz spectrum band to support CBRS in 2017, they dubbed it the “Innovation Band.” The name was apt. From its inception, this shared spectrum was meant to shake up the telecommunications sector. The FCC took the initiative to change the wireless model and make more spectrum available for innovation. Once that door was opened, industry leaders like Federated Wireless quickly jumped in to make the shared spectrum vision a reality. CBRS, and the private wireless networks it enables, were meant to break open a market dominated by a small handful of players and spur new market entrants, technologies, and business models.
Among other things, early advocates believed private wireless would help:
- Bridge the Digital Divide: Despite years of network expansion, as much as 30% of the United States today remains either unserved or underserved by broadband and wireless services. CBRS backers hoped that, by opening up 150 MHz of spectrum to new vendors and technology models, we could start to close that gap.
- Unleash Industry 4.0: Global industry and manufacturers have long envisioned a world of automated, digitally interconnected factories, farms and businesses. By applying digital tools and artificial intelligence (AI) to every aspect of industrial operations, we can increase productivity, enhance safety, and broadly improve people’s lives. As just one example, automotive airbag makers could use AI-connected video cameras to monitor the end-to-end manufacturing process for material flaws, instead of just measuring samples. Innovations like these could save millions of lives – but they depend on more reliable, ubiquitous connectivity.
So, five years on, how much progress have we actually made toward these goals? In fact, we’ve come so far, so quickly, it’s hard to overstate how much we’ve accomplished.
Feeding the virtuous circle
Let’s look at each item on the “to-do list” for private wireless networks:
- Carrier adoption: Today, all major operators support shared spectrum and are rolling out private wireless offerings.
- Device vendor adoption: All the major telecom handset vendors have now implemented private wireless support in handsets.
- New market entrants: In addition to new technology vendors hitting the scene, private wireless has fueled the growth of new mobile carriers. Cable operators have entered the wireless space, almost exclusively with shared spectrum technologies. And now, hyperscale cloud providers are getting into the private wireless game too.
- New business models: The combination of cloud providers, new and traditional carriers, and private wireless tech startups is spurring diverse new business models that will start rolling out at scale this year. Major players like AWS, Google, Verizon, and AT&T have already announced shared spectrum offerings that will bring private wireless to tens of thousands of enterprises.
Critical to this thriving private wireless ecosystem, each step along the journey has added credibility, momentum, and scale. Early carrier buy-in made private wireless a mainstream requirement for chipmakers. This, in turn, ensured that handset makers like Apple and Samsung would implement private wireless in tens of millions of devices now shipping worldwide – a foundational requirement for mass-market development. The entrance of new carriers, like cable operators, has pushed innovative, less expensive small cell deployment models into the mainstream. And now, the enterprise-direct models that the hyperscalers are rolling out will spur mass-scale private wireless innovation in industry, the Internet of Things (IoT), edge compute, automation, and more.
In just a few short years, we’ve created a vast, self-sustaining virtuous circle. And everyone – new and traditional carriers, cloud providers, enterprises, industry, and thousands of smaller companies and millions of individuals – will benefit.
As far as we’ve come, we’re still near the beginning of the private wireless journey. So, what’s next?
- Cloud-based enterprise-direct models will turbocharge private wireless: The entrance of the big cloud players into private wireless represents a key milestone, as it will spur the kind of innovation that’s only possible when thousands of enterprises adopt a new technology at scale. Look for equipment and deployment costs to fall dramatically. And, as thousands of enterprise implementations go live, expect many more developers and vendors to get into the private wireless game, accelerating the development of new capabilities and applications.
- Public/private partnerships will kickstart Smart City growth: After enterprises, look for the next wave of private wireless to crest among municipalities, universities, and school districts aiming to unleash Smart City capabilities. For example, the same AI-connected video applications used by industrial enterprises could serve as anchors for Smart City implementations to automate traffic enforcement, accelerate emergency services, and more.
- Private wireless will extend across more of the spectrum: We’re already seeing shared spectrum technologies expand beyond CBRS into Wi-Fi with Wi-Fi 6E. Eventually, they’ll be applied to every part of the spectrum. They provide a simple, efficient way to add or expand connectivity over an existing carrier footprint, using existing spectrum assets.
It can be easy to get caught up in the hype cycle of new technology innovations, but when it comes to private wireless, the hype seems more than justified. Back in 2017, if I’d predicted we’d upend the wireless industry and bring this brand-new technology to millions of devices and thousands of businesses in just five years, some would have called me crazy. Yet here we are. The momentum is only accelerating – see our own recent announcement of US$58 million in new funding. In the coming years, look for Federated Wireless and other leaders in this space to continue investing in and accelerating shared spectrum innovation.