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13 June 2018

GE’s approach to CBRS would create a US-wide IIoT network, excluding the MNOs

One of the most important potential impacts of 5G will be to enable aspects of the Industrial IoT, and this is central to many government socio-economic roadmaps for the technology. Many regulators and policy makers have not, apparently, got that message. They are often making slow progress on some of the key changes which are required in the mobile market, to kickstart support for new enterprise and IoT use cases.

In particular, neutral host networks and shared spectrum will be vital to lower the barriers to entry for specialized operators. Many MNOs are failing to make a strong business case for deploying low latency, high availability, massive density services, and this will create a serious disconnect between industries’ desire to use 5G to help with digital transformation and efficient processes; and the ability of the 5G networks to deliver what they need. Yet, given access to spectrum and infrastructure at reasonable cost – pay-as-you-go rather than massive upfront fees, for instance – many other organizations would be well placed to fill the gap.

Shared spectrum schemes like the US’s CBRS general access, as well as licences allocated on a regional basis, could support a model for which Wireless Watch has often argued, in which specialized service providers build localized small cell networks to serve particular industries or locations. These would not be best effort like WiFi, but would have the characteristics required by an enterprise, a city or a use case, from low latency to high security, and so on. They would then rely on MVNO deals to support wide area roaming.

Some of the players proposing or trialling such methods are very niche, but one of the world’s biggest industrial companies – and the biggest force behind the IIoT – is throwing its weight behind more flexible approaches to spectrum licensing. GE has made a pledge to use the CBRS band “intensively” when the FCC makes it available, in order to bring the benefits of the IIoT to US industries.

The CBRS scheme has three layers with different levels of sharing. The top layer of users are the incumbent federal departments, which have top priority and are guaranteed no interference from commercial wireless services. Then there are priority access licences (PALs), which will be exclusive to their holders. There is still significant debate about the geographical size, and the length of term, of these licences. There is also a general access (GA) layer which is fully shared and potentially disruptive.

GE is interested in both, but particularly in the PALs, which could support new services and providers, with the high level of availability and reliability needed for some IIoT applications. But it argues that the FCC must retain census tract licensing, which is in danger of being removed from the final regulatory picture.

GE was the driving force behind the IIoT Consortium, a group of vendors, operators and enterprises which is creating platforms based around work originally done by GE for its inhouse purposes. It has invested in connectivity for most of its products, from jet engine components to white goods, and in the analytics frameworks to turn all that data into business processes like predictive maintenance. Its GE Digital and Predix units have now been turned into outward facing commercial businesses, providing similar capabilities to other companies on an as-a-service basis. While AT&T is part of the IIoT Consortium, and GE also uses mobile connectivity from Verizon, it is easy to see how GE and its partners would gain better control of the network characteristics they need for any given application, if they could deploy at least some connectivity themselves.

To try to ensure that the final set of CBRS rules are favorable to its model, GE has built a cross-industry coalition to lobby for its cause, including organizations from many sectors including cablecos, equipment vendors, rural broadband and wireless operators, manufacturers and other industrial players, and providers of critical infrastructure and enterprise solutions.

GE says that, if the FCC retains census tract licensing in the 3.5 GHz band, it expects to bid on numerous census tract PALs itself. It expects some of its industrial and critical infrastructure customers to bid on an even greater number of census tract PALs to build out private LTE networks in partnership with GE, specifically optimized for IIoT applications.

It adds that it would work with partners to offer IIoT customers “connectivity in a box” in the 3.5 GHz band. “GE will provide these industrial and critical infrastructure entities with IIoT technology and serve as a wireless system aggregator, using PAL spectrum to take full advantage of advances in inspection, remote control, and monitoring technologies, edge computing capabilities, and cloud-based big data predictive analytics,” the company said.

That could result in a significant new line of business for the company, whose traditional big iron manufacturing activities are under pressure in terms of growth and margins. As well as ‘network in a box’ and ‘IIoT as a service’ models, it could also use the resulting network to support brand new applications and revenue streams of its own. For instance, last week it launched Airxos, a management and traffic control system for drones, and is now working with regional aviation authorities and the cities of San Diego and Memphis to pilot the platform.

But GE’s approach could also result in a high quality network, designed around the right locations and performance characteristics for the IIoT, to be created, independently of the MNOs.

The network would not need to be nationwide – gaps would be filled via deals to use the national mobile systems. But where an IIoT application was required, it could access a network far better suited to its needs than the generic mobile RAN. That is why regional licensing is so essential to the 5G model in most countries, because it makes the economics work for systems that do not require nationwide coverage (and may require very little coverage at all, as in a smart city). Yet very few regulators are seriously thinking about regional allocations of core 5G bands yet, and even in the US CBRS scheme, which has been so imaginative in many ways, there is the risk that entrenched interests will dilute the proposals to protect the MNOs’ usual business model.

“There is no doubt that entities from the industrial and critical infrastructure sectors will compete vigorously in auctions for census tract licenses in order to obtain the spectrum necessary to support IIoT-related services and applications,” GE wrote in a recent filing.

In 2015, the FCC adopted licensing rules based on census tracts, but the MNOs argue that these are too small. The operators’ representative groups, CTIA and the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA), presented a compromise in April which would base PALs on Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) in the top 306 of the US’s 734 cellular markets, and on county-based geographic areas in the remaining 428. The GE coalition has accepted a component of MSA-sized PAL licences, but insists there must still be census tract options too.