Private cellular networks open the mobile IoT to a host of new players

This article first appeared in Riot’s sister publication Wireless Watch.

Private networks and shared cellular spectrum will be key themes of 5G as well as 4G. Qualcomm took time out from legal and takeover battles last week to talk about some of the 5G technologies it is pushing for Release 16, the next wave of radio standards, which should be defined in 2019-2020. These included a private 5G network which would support industrial Ethernet over wireless; and its latest ideas on 5G in shared airwaves.

The chip provider said that it could treble users’ speeds by supporting tighter coordination between devices sharing unlicensed spectrum. It had been testing this using technologies such as Coordinated Multi-Point (COMP) and Spatial Domain Multiplexing (SDM) in 5G-Unlicensed. Qualcomm is one of the most enthusiastic developers of 5G-U, though work on standardizing it for Release 16 will not start until later this year.

Qualcomm said in a statement: “This is designed to deliver higher network capacity and user throughput, through tighter coordination among users of unlicensed and shared spectrum bands. The demonstration utilized the previously announced Qualcomm Technologies 5G NR spectrum sharing prototype system, which is also designed to support testing of 5G NR operation in unlicensed spectrum, both licensed-assisted access (LAA) and standalone operation without a licensed anchor, also known as 5G MulteFire.”

The demo focused on how individual users within a cell could obtain their own line of service that would not be affected by interference from other users in the same cell.

But the proliferation of private cellular networks is not waiting for 5G. Specialized enterprise and IoT requirements are driving interest (see above) and many companies in the small cell industry are seizing the opportunity. Small cells have struggled to achieve the level of MNO uptake that was predicted for them, often because the operators have preferred to add capacity using more traditional methods like adding sectors to macro stations, or by offloading to WiFi.

While many MNOs are embarking on large-scale densification now, the small cell vendors also see the potential to target other providers, which can create self-contained enterprise sub-nets made up of a localized packet core and small cell RAN – allowing enterprises to control their own networks while still using standard cellular connectivity and devices, rather than proprietary private networks.

Quortus and Core Network Dynamics (CND), on the virtualized packet core side, and several RAN hardware vendors such as ip.access, have been central to this trend. Indeed, ip.access – the longest established of the small cell specialists, with its roots going back to 2G – has announced deployment of its 150th private cellular network.

Total revenues for private LTE networks are forecast to grow from $22.1bn in 2017 to $118.5bn in 2023, according to a recent study by Harbor Research. The same analysis also predicts that total device shipment volumes in this space will grow from 170.7m in 2017 to 765.1m in 2023.

Nick Johnson, CTO and founder of ip.access, commented: “It’s easy to understand the importance of private cellular networks to a wide range of customers: they are easy-to-host, highly secure, cost effective, high performance edge networks. From simple applications, like patient tracking in healthcare facilities, to more complex ones, like increasing production line automation, there is significant new value to be derived from private networks.  As mobile operators seek to grow revenue from their existing spectrum assets, and as new service providers emerge to exploit shared spectrum such as CBRS, TV white space and Licensed Shared Access, private LTE networks are the natural way to achieve that.”

On the core front, CND’s CEO Carsten Brinkschulte is also seeing a rising opportunity. It has developed OpenEPC, and will announced an upgraded version at Mobile World Congress next week. CND says that an unnamed Tier one carrier is planning to embed OpenEPC in small cells to create a compact, self-organizing and highly distributed private LTE network. Quortus has also deployed its virtualized EPC on small cells, and even on a Raspberry Pi.

Brinlschulte, in an interview last week, identified the challenges for large vendors and operators in this fragmenting market. “First, the routes to market (for private LTE) are diverse and it’s unlikely that the carriers can own this market,” he said. “They will win some of it, but not all. The sorts of players coming to supply the needs of corporates in this market are likely to include big IT companies who will be attracted by the unlicensed band and the fact that they won’t have to work with the carriers.”

“Second is technical and financial. Enterprises certainly won’t want to pay half a million or two million euros for a packet core, so the large vendors will find it difficult to scale down their offerings to suit them.”

The catalyst for these private networks will be the Industrial IoT with its heavy focus on low latency edge-based services. Here, small cells with integrated packet cores and processing resources come into their own and enable new business models based on distributed cloud services and optimized sub-nets. One IoT-focused specialist provider which aims to seize the opportunity is Cradlepoint, which recently extended its business of providing IoT routers to enterprises, by bundling in cloud services.

Now, it has announced a subscription-based mobile network solution which uses SD-WAN technology to bring flexible and secure connectivity to fleet-based organizations such as emergency services and bus or vehicle operators. The package is one of a series of planned offerings within the company’s NetCloud portfolio, and includes a new IBR1700 ruggedized mobile IoT router.

Cradlepoint said the solution was aimed at organizations that rely on distributed field forces and fleets, and need to ensure their staff and passengers have access to mission-critical applications and the Internet from anywhere, in order to deal with data from onboard telemetry, sensors, surveillance cameras and other devices.

This is an example of how lines are blurring between MNOs and more specialized service providers in the IoT, with some of the higher value elements of the value chain – many relating to the handling and analyzing of machine data – being taken by emerging organizations. Last year, Cradlepoint  unveiled a reinvented business model, which bundles its cloud services with its new IoT-focused routers, in a move to create a stickier offering. These are focused on its IBR200 IoT router, the IBR700, which is for mobile environments like vehicles. It also has a set of services and hardware for in-building use, which it labels Branch.

It has already signed customers for the router/services bundle in the vehicular market, bridging the in-vehicle devices, such as cameras, telematics systems, and medical equipment, to the NetCloud cloud via LTE. For instance, buses running in New York’s Three Boroughs use Cradlepoint to power signage, security cameras, the payment systems, and telematics.

Security is another key concern, and Cradlepoint is providing its Perimeter Security as the on-device answer. An interesting feature is the option of a Software-Defined APN, which effectively makes your router not publicly addressable – to prevent people being able to reach out remotely to it, as easily as they might have been able to.

Cradlepoint says it is seeing a shift in its customers, as they expand their IoT projects, from having different teams for each of the Branch, Mobile, or IoT deployments, to a single team that was responsible for a unified system. This is especially so in smart cities.