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21 December 2021

CBRS band drives spate of private 5G-as-a-service offering in USA

The reallocated CBRS 3.5 GHz band has stimulated the private 5G-as-a-service field in the USA, although it is also on the rise elsewhere.

The latest move has come from Geoverse, a Washington DC-based specialist in private 5G, which has partnered with WCI Technologies to deliver the latter’s private LTE and 5G core networking components to the energy, healthcare, and education sectors. The two will deliver both shared and licensed infrastructure over either 5G or LTE in the 3.55-3.7 GHz CBRS band. WCI Technologies, headquartered in Houston, Texas, first established a presence in the hospitality sector for private network integration from which it has expended into those other three sectors.

This attracted Geoverse, which contributes its experience in deployments around licensed spectrum, as well as wider geographical reach. “By partnering with Geoverse, we will have the ability to advance relationship and technical project management to our enterprise customers nationwide,” confirmed Robert Grosz, chief commercial officer at WCI. “Geoverse provides effective system integration and deployment of licensed spectrum that we need to ensure positive customer experiences for these key verticals.”

This comes just a week after Amazon AWS unveiled AWS Private 5G, a managed service based on self-configuring hardware designed for enterprises to deploy private 5G networks in the CBRS 3.5 GHz band more quickly and scalably than before on a pay as you go basis. In other words, this is the traditional AWS proposition. “With AWS Private 5G, you can set up and scale a private mobile network in days, instead of months,” claimed AWS CEO Adam Selipsky during a keynote at the hyperscaler’s re:Invent conference earlier this month. “You get all of the goodness of mobile technology, without the pain of long planning cycles, complex integrations and the high upfront costs typically associated with private mobile networks.”

In line with other such offerings, AWS is targeting not just greenfields but the far more numerous enterprises that have already deployed some form of private network, typically either wired Ethernet or WiFi.  “Wired networks perform well, but they are expensive to deploy and upgrade. And they don’t extend very well to mobile devices. Enterprise WiFi is pretty easy and cheap to use, but it has range and coverage issues,” said Selipsky.

AWS is also targeting primarily slightly smaller enterprises that will not be able to cope with the complexities of private 5G deployment. Even larger ones have struggled in some cases to grapple with management and legacy integration, as we have seen at Volkswagen for example (see separate story), so AWS may also find some takers there.

WiFi may be a target for providers of private 5G-as-a-service, but it should also serve as an inspiration in its ease of installation and use. That view has been taken by Todd Krautkremer, CMO of Cradlepoint, the private network equipment vendor Ericsson acquired in 2020 for $1.1bn to get a rapid leg-up into the field.

Krautkremer contends that availability of as-a-service models is propelling private 5G networking generally precisely because it is reducing complexity to WiFi levels. “People want the value of private 5G but they don’t want to build a mini-carrier network,” he explained in LightReading. “They want it to act a lot like WiFi does in the enterprise.”

AWS was playing catch-up with archrival Microsoft Azure, which launched its Azure private multi-access edge compute (MEC) in June 2021 as an extension of its existing Private Edge Zones. They both support private LTE networks, which are still far more prevalent than their 5G counterparts, and both include cloud services or applications, such as video analytics.

The impact of AWS and Azure here will be to open a wider base of potential enterprise customers, bearing in mind that they also underpin a small but growing number of other private 5G network-as-a-service offerings.

Foremost among these is NTT’s private cellular-as-a-service platform, launched in August 2021 under the brand P5G. California-based private LTE/5G start-up Celona is the key partner alongside NTT stablemates NTT Transatel and NTT Data for the roaming and IT services. Celona itself described this service as a combination of “enterprise networking, old-school telecom, and cloud-native infrastructure”. Presumably NTT was deemed to have contributed the old school telecoms.

Although not listed as partners, Azure and AWS are there lurking in the background, providing the computational framework responsible for the promised scalability and elasticity. NTT confirmed that the core network was being deployed as containerized microservices hosted on either Azure or AWS, depending presumably on the enterprise’s choice, rolling out worldwide and currently in over 20 countries.

There are no mobile operators involved yet, but the door has been left open, with NTT raising the possibility of a neutral host model to integrate with public carrier networks.

Indeed, Celona has recently been suggesting the neutral host model could be preferable to support differentiated services over common infrastructure than network slicing, at least in the shorter term, arguing that the latter’s complexity may deter deployment.

Celona has gone so far as to propose the neutral host model as the killer app for private 5G, by allowing multiple MNOs to extend their public cellular coverage indoors, or to serve areas such as train stations or shopping malls that are dense with users.

Celona has used the term 5G local area networking (LAN) to describe services such as NTT’s P5G, which rather throws down the gauntlet to WiFi.