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6 December 2018

CBRS tests latest sign of Amazon’s growing interest in connectivity

The trends outlined in the preceding articles have seen the webscale companies moving further into investing in their own connectivity to form their global networks. Last year, AWS launched PrivateLink, which enables software-as-a-service developers to provide private cloud connections and endpoints. In the same year, Google launched connectivity between enterprise private clouds and its own cloud, allowing customers to choose between telco connectivity or that of Google’s own global infrastructure.

Investment in physical connectivity – moving beyond the software-defined networking (SDN) which cloud giants pioneered – has risen. Google and Amazon have both been part of undersea cable deployments – AWS is putting money into several current projects, including a cable between Australia and the USA, one between Japan and the USA, and another (scheduled for 2021) linking Hong Kong, Singapore and the USA.

And while Google has Project Loon, its stratellite-based wireless connectivity system, AWS has trialled various emerging spectrum bands, including CBRS and Globalstar’s 2.4 GHz. In 2013, it worked with satellite provider Globalstar, which owns S-band spectrum (2483.5-2495 MHz) adjacent to the unlicensed 2.4 GHz ISM band, used by WiFi and other radios. The two companies trialled TLPS (terrestrial low power service), with a view to running a private network, using WiFi-like technology. That would have been able to support WiFi devices while offering partners a more secure and quality-controlled spectrum environment than the 2.4 GHz wild west.

The plan foundered on FCC and mobile industry opposition, and fears of interference with WiFi, but it was an early indicator of the desire of some non-MNOs, such as Amazon, to find a network they can control more effectively than an MVNO agreement, but not actually have to build out.

Over the past year, there have been persistent reports that Amazon was interested in being an anchor tenant, and co-investor, for Dish’s NB-IoT network, which the pay-TV provider is already promoting as ‘5G’.

The thinking behind a tie-up between Dish and Amazon is that the retailer would help fund the build-out of a network in Dish’s spectrum. For Amazon, that would bring it a mobile network which could be optimized for its own ends, from internal IoT usage to AWS services to supporting mobile Prime services. This would come at far lower cost than seeking its own spectrum, but with better control than an MVNO or WiFi approach. For Dish, the investment and the anchor tenant would make the economics work at last, and it could also launch mobile options to its TV customers in bundles, to make it more competitive with AT&T’s DirecTV and with cable providers.

One way in which such a venture could deliver more than the sum of its parts would be in the IoT. Dish already plans an NB-IoT roll-out, and while this looks largely designed to address FCC build-out demands associated with some of its spectrum, it could be expanded in scope to provide the first US network fully optimized for machine-to-machine purposes, rather than bolted onto a mobile broadband platform and business model.

The resulting network could be used by Amazon, as the anchor customer, for its own logistics purposes (it is an increasingly heavy user of wireless delivery and tracking, including drones); and to offer IoT services to enterprise AWS customers. AWS could layer new services onto a wireless network over which it had significant control. The recently launched AWS Greengrass edge cloud platform could be an effective way to address low latency IoT requirements, for instance, if integrated into the mobile network.

Another big hope for a more open connectivity landscape for US enterprises is the CBRS spectrum, with its three tiers of access. At re:Invent, there was a demonstration of DeepLens cameras connected to a private LTE network running in CBRS shared spectrum. This highlighted how non-MNO spectrum will allow alternative providers to seize some of the rising enterprise cellular business from the traditional operators; and how interested Amazon is in that development.

Like other enterprise providers, AWS could use shared bands, like the general access element of the USA’s CBRS spectrum, to move more deeply into connectivity without having to buy licences or pay hefty fees to MNOs. The demo, at AWS’s Las Vegas event was clearly designed to show enterprises how they could use CBRS for their own private mobile purposes, with the help of their cloud provider rather than their MNO.

About 100 developers were invited to take part, and each used a DeepLens device, built by Amazon with facial and image recognition capabilities. The devices linked to modems over the 3.5 GHz CBRS band, enabling all the cameras to exchange data within the conference hall.

Federated Wireless, one of the providers of Spectrum Access Systems (SAS) to manage the various tiers of access to CBRS frequencies, supplied the spectrum controller, while AWS contributed the cloud platform, and Amazon a range of services.

The demonstration also used the BubbleCloud local packet core from Athonet, one of the start-ups being incubated by Orange under the Facebook-driven Telecom Infra Project. In this set-up, BubbleCloud enabled localized LTE networks connected and controlled from the AWS cloud, while the LTE RAN equipment itself came from Ruckus Networks, now part of Commscope (also active in CBRS even before it acquired Ruckus’s most recent parent company, Arris).

As CBRS is not expected to be supported in handsets for a couple of years, it is essential to building the private LTE ecosystem that the focus is on non-smartphone applications, particularly in the IoT. CBRS, and similar schemes, could accelerate the development of the industrial IoT by making it far faster and easier to create IoT applications on top of cellular, according to Iyad Tarazi, president and CEO of Federated Wireless. At re:Invent, developers were able to create their own IoT apps on CBRS from scratch within a couple of hours, enabled by the cloud model and localized cellular control.

This is not the first time Amazon has been involved in pushing the CBRS ecosystem, with an eye on private enterprise cellular networks which could boost its own cloud and Greengrass services. The firm has carried out its own tests in the band, and last week, IEEE Spectrum reported on an application to the FCC for an experimental licence to test CBRS applications. This was filed by a company called Chrome Enterprises, which wants to test up to 450 prototype devices using CBRS at three California sites. The locations listed map to Amazon facilities, and it is widely believed that Amazon is behind the application.