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12 July 2019

Puloli claims world-first Cat-NB private network

San Francisco’s Puloli claims to have launched the world’s first private LTE Cat-NB network, in a 700MHz band deployment in Florida that is aimed at utilities and infrastructure providers. Aiming to provide a Network-aaS model, Puloli is now pitching the Cat-NB directly at the unlicensed LPWAN camp, using just a 2MHz spectrum allocation.

The network went live in June, and is notably not using the conventional guard-band model for deployment, where MNOs put their Cat-NB signals in the guard-band gaps between their other LTE bands, so as not to have to reduce full-fat LTE coverage. Instead, Puloli has an FCC license to use part of the Upper 700MHz A Block, specifically, a 2MHz paired slice split between the downlink and uplink.

Puloli isn’t the only such license holder, as there are apparently 21 licenses in this band that are held by critical infrastructure organizations – spanning utilities, oil and gas, and rail operators. Puloli worked with Select Spectrum, a spectrum rights marketing and consulting firm that also offers FCC licenses, to launch the Floridian network, which Puloli is positioning as one of the most capital-efficient approaches for utilities and infrastructure providers.

There were concerns that the guard-band approach could interfere with the neighboring LTE bands, which have not exactly been abated. None of the operators would want to admit that Cat-NB is hampering the rest of their LTE network, and nor have we found a Cat-NB or LTE user that has claimed to have been impacted by any such interference, but it is indicative that MNOs are largely pursuing guard-band instead of dedicated channels – a sign that there’s not much money in Cat-NB, and that the channel is better spent on more lucrative LTE variants.

This could change in time, but there’s a definite chicken-or-the-egg mechanism at play there, which is of course a benefit for U-LPWAN vendors and any other firms that want to take Puloli’s approach. The startup says that it can achieve a 25-mile range from towers, which sounds rather a lot – especially with no mention of indoor penetration.

There is a different dynamic at play in the L-LPWAN space than in most discussions of private LTE, where most people considering a private network are doing so because of the high cost of paying the MNO for moving all the data over their networks. In L-LPWAN, both the connectivity costs and the amount of data being transferred are significantly lower, and so there’s less of a justification to pay to have a private network installed – as the return on investment is very much likely not to work out in your favor.

For things like raw material extraction and industrial facilities, where the size of the complex is somewhat against using WiFi but still local enough that the data traffic is not going regional or national, private LTE has become very interesting. If you need to pull raw telematics from a machine and have it immediately sent to a controller application, paying an MNO on a per-MB basis is not going to work out. However, if you have a private LTE network, and are operating in spectrum you own or are freely able to use, such as the CBRS band, then the business case might add up very nicely.

For L-LPWAN, the main driver for opting for a private network deployment is going to be coverage. If the local MNO shows no or slow interest in deploying Cat-NB for you, then you might turn to a company like Puloli. However, those companies are going to be competing against the rest of the U-LPWAN community, and so LoRaWAN, Sigfox, and Wi-SUN come into play.

Wi-SUN is very strong in the utilities sector, especially in electrical deployments, while LoRaWAN has racked up wins in water and gas. Sigfox is being used for metering too, but in China, Cat-NB has proved very popular in metering – thanks largely to government support via subsidized costs and deployment mandates.

Puloli’s co-founders, Kethees Ketheesan and Kevin Koehler, have backgrounds spanning Newfield Wireless, NetScout, Marvell, Motorola, SOMA Networks, and Tektronix. Founded in 2016, Puloli raised a seed round of funding and still has less than ten staff (four, according to LinkedIn at least). Modules from Pycom are being used initially, which are powered by Sequans’ Monarch chipsets.

“Puloli’s software-defined solution combined with our deep domain expertise in NB-IoT enabled us to do a rapid development, network design, and deployment in a very short order,” said Kethees Ketheesan, CEO of Puloli. “Our solution is truly a full turn-key end-to-end solution. Our customers do not have to go to another entity for system integration. Puloli takes care of all aspects of the service from remote units to network to service activation.

“Existing 700 MHz radio suppliers provide a wide range of high-quality and high-throughput solutions for critical infrastructure,” said Robert Finch, president of Select Spectrum. “We also saw a need for the long range, low power, long battery life, and low-cost remotes available through the cellular industry’s 3GPP LTE NB IoT standard, and we are very pleased with the results of Puloli’s development.”