Ask the Expert: What Are the Benefits of Using the Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS) or a Private Wireless Network, in General?

And what can organizations gain from mobile computing devices such as the latest Zebra TC26 that offer support for CBRS?

A delivery driver uses a TC26 mobile computer to scan a label on a package
by Your Edge Blog Team
June 11, 2021

Over the past few months, we’ve started to analyze “what’s next in wireless” in the enterprise space as the consumer market buzzes with excitement around 5G and Wi-Fi 6.  Businesses must carefully consider which will really be capable of supporting their current – and growing – operations. They should also become acquainted with the other wireless connectivity options available for commercial use, including private LTE networks.

As noted in a recent interview with enterprise mobility expert, Bruce Willins, there is not a single best roadmap for organizations to follow as they transition to these next-generation wireless technologies.  Customers should consider the technical, operational, and financial tradeoffs that come with each technology. In many instances, several technologies may be overlayed based on use case or to assist with the migration from one to another. That’s why it’s so important to sit down with a trusted technology partner to evaluate your needs and map out the best way forward.

To help you ask the right questions when you do and ultimately select the right connectivity solution for your workers, we followed up with Bruce to learn how private LTE networks, traditional 4G/5G, and Wi-Fi fit into an enterprise strategy. We also asked him to outline ideal use case scenarios for those trying to decide if they should set up a private LTE network.

Your Edge Blog Team: In our last discussion, you laid out several of the considerations that must be taken into account when building out a future-ready enterprise mobility strategy. You also mentioned the complexity of today’s wireless ecosystem and how it could take many years before organizations will benefit from the new cellular and Wi-Fi technologies hitting the market today. Is that true of private LTE networks as well?

Bruce: Let’s start with some definitions. In this context, a “private network” is a cellular network that is – as implied by the name – not directly accessible to the public.  These networks may be provisioned and managed outside of traditional service providers, which is where the Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS) fits in. Remember, CBRS is part of a “shared spectrum” initiative and may therefore be deployed under either licensed (PAL) or unlicensed/lightly licensed (GAA) spectrum models. As a cellular network, these solutions are based on either 4G and/or 5G protocols. In the case of licensed spectrum, carriers may remote issue license spectrum directly to enterprises and/or to third-party private network providers. Because enterprises essentially become their own private networks, they have the option to self-administer their networks. Data privacy is maintained since data distribution is completely contained within the confines of each private network. Only authenticated devices are allowed on the network. Device authentication is accomplished via a SIM/ESIM, which is a strong, mature authentication mechanism.

Though CBRS is relatively new, private networks are not.  For context, the private LTE market was about $4B in 2020 and is expected to grow to $7.5B by 2025.

Your Edge Blog Team: With that in mind, should businesses that need strong, reliable wireless coverage both inside and outside their buildings be looking more closely at solutions that allow them to stand up a private LTE network, such as CBRS in the U.S.?

Bruce: CBRS is one of several technologies making private networks more attractive to enterprise customers.  As discussed in our last session, CBRS at 3.5GHz is an attractive band for coverage and capacity and can be provisioned as either PAL or GAA.  Being able to deploy a CBRS solution under GAA means that enterprise customers can provision their CBRS networks without having to go through a service provider or bid for spectrum at auction.

As to whether an enterprise should consider a CBRS private network, it depends.

When considering a CBRS solution, enterprises should define their coverage and capacity requirements.  Keep in mind that one of the key factors driving data rates and system capacity is the amount of available bandwidth. CBRS represents 150MHz of spectral bandwidth. Though significant, this alone may not be sufficient for high node density, highly data intensive applications. As a point of comparison: Wi-Fi with the addition of 6E has about 1.7 GHz of bandwidth or more than 10x that of CBRS. So, if a customer is looking to create small, very high bandwidth cells, Wi-Fi and/or 5G mmWave solutions might be better suited. 

But bandwidth doesn’t tell the entire story, you need to consider coverage and reliability. CBRS base stations are capable of significantly more power/coverage than Wi-Fi, for example. Furthermore, 4G/5G protocols running over CBRS provide more deterministic performance than Wi-Fi. Finally, from a security standpoint, SIM technology offers a well-established, strong solution for device authentication.

Your Edge Blog Team: How do you see enterprise customers leveraging CBRS in a private network?

Bruce: CBRS plays an increasingly important role in many ways. From a tactical perspective, CBRS adds to cellular spectrum which benefits service providers (who may or may not be part of a private network) and the performance of all cellular devices. From a strategic perspective, as part of “shared spectrum,” CBRS affords enterprise customers the ability to cover large areas with cellular technology and to have complete administrative control without going through a service provider or purchasing spectrum at auction. If more capacity is needed, they just add infrastructure. This is a very significant change – and a fundamental addition – to how private networks can be provisioned.

Your Edge Blog Team: Are there situations in which CBRS may be recommended as a total replacement solution for Wi-Fi or traditional 4G/5G network service?

Bruce: That’s a bit of an ambiguous question, but important to answer.  Remember, CBRS is nothing more than a chunk of spectrum.  Thus, it relies on 4G and/or 5G technology for a complete solution. So, it’s not one or the other. It is, however, fair to ask if we see a CBRS solution (with 4G and/or 5G) displacing all other solutions. Though possible in some niche applications, more often we see CBRS being used to supplement other technologies such as Wi-Fi to economically extend coverage to an expansive, currently dark area like a parking lot. In other situations, we see it used to extend cellular coverage to underserved areas, such as rural areas of the country.  Finally, we see CBRS being used as a means to establish a temporary network. A good example would be standing up a network for staff at an event.

Your Edge Blog Team: Going forward, what use cases do you see leveraging CBRS?

Bruce: We see both indoor and outdoor use cases, though we’re somewhat biased to outdoor scenarios.  We also see customers using CBRS to segregate more sensitive and/or critical traffic. Quite often it comes down to total cost of ownership (TCO). A single CBRS base station may provide coverage equivalent to 10 or more Wi-Fi access points. 

We do see instances where customers will overlay their existing networks with a CBRS/private network solution, keeping mission-critical traffic on the CBRS network and relegating tactical traffic (i.e., guest use vs. employee use) to their Wi-Fi networks. In our last discussion, we had an example of a hospital which was doing exactly this.

From an outdoor perspective, imagine a retailer looking to extend coverage to a large parking lot or garden center. Parking lot sales and curbside pickup are driving the need for extended coverage. Also, think of school campuses, shipyards, rail yards, mining areas, airport tarmacs and similar settings. All can potentially benefit from CBRS. There are also niche applications, like setting up a network for staff communications at a golf tournament or a provisioning a CBRS network on a cruise ship.

It is very much the same situation indoors. A warehouse customer looking to extend coverage through a large open area could once again forgo numerous Wi-Fi access points and provision a single CBRS base station (CBSD).

Your Edge Blog Team: Will people attending a concert or golf tournament be able to connect to a CBRS network using their consumer-grade devices?

Bruce:  They can if they have the right devices and the network administrator provides them a means to load the necessary credentials onto their phones (i.e., SIM). In this scenario, it’s more likely the CBRS network would be relegated to the event staff, who would be issued CBRS band 48-enabled devices preloaded with the necessary authentication credentials. Note that some CBRS vendors offer tools/solutions that allow credentials to be provisioned via a simple barcode scan or over an alternative network through an enterprise mobility management (EMM) platform. 

Your Edge Blog Team: How will an organization know if a device is CBRS compatible?

Bruce: You will need to ask the device manufacturer what they offer or look for confirmation on the spec sheet. For example, Zebra just introduced a handheld mobile computer that is capable of connecting to a CBRS network, the TC26. We clearly noted its compatibility in the marketing and sales materials. We also have a rugged tablet (the L10 series) capable of connecting to a CBRS network, and we inform customers about this option.

Your Edge Blog Team: Can you walk us through the steps for setting up a CBRS network? What type of hardware and software is needed?

Bruce: Once you’ve decided that a CBRS network is right for you, there are different options on how to proceed. One option is to outsource the effort and contract a third-party service provider. A list of service providers can be found at OnGo Alliance.

Alternatively, you can select a base station provider which generally can provide the base station hardware (CBSD), the necessary SAS & ECS services, and device provisioning support.  You will need to provision your phones either directly with a physical SIM or configure an ESIM. If you require your devices to access to both the private network and a public mobile network operator’s (MNO) network, then you will need dual SIM capabilities. 

Your Edge Blog Team: Are all enterprise-grade mobile devices automatically compatible with CBRS networks?

Bruce: No. You need a mobile computer or tablet that’s specifically designed to support the CBRS band.  If you’re in the U.S., that’s commonly referred to as Band 48. This impacts the hardware design, so do not expect that a non-CBRS device can be upgraded to CBRS via a firmware update. 

Though many regions outside the U.S. are exploring the concept of “shared spectrum,” frequency bands and system requirements will likely vary from those in the US.

Your Edge Blog Team: You mentioned reliability. Is CBRS more reliable than Wi-Fi?

Bruce: Wireless networks have increasingly become the backbone for many mission-critical enterprise applications. Beyond traditional voice/data use cases, we are seeing an increase in machine-to-machine (M2M) applications, including numerous Internet of Things (IoT) devices ranging from sensors that monitor cold storage and clean rooms to building infrastructure monitors, weight scales and asset tags. So reliability is more critical than ever. As I mentioned earlier, CBRS Band 48 under GAA is still “lightly licensed,” so it avoids co-channel interference that may impact Wi-Fi networks. Also, in contrast to Wi-Fi, Band 48 device use is more constrained which may further limit interference. Finally, Wi-Fi is a decentralized, contention base system, whereas CBRS solutions are centrally controlled, improving both reliability and predictability. 

You Edge Blog Team: Is that why the TC26 and L10 were prioritized for CBRS?

Bruce: That’s definitely part of it. I know my colleagues and I may sound like broken records, but you must pick the right mobile solution for your workflow and worker requirements. Having CBRS provides you another tool in the toolbox. Whether you’re using a private network or a public cellular network, CBRS can enhance your mobile experience. It often comes down to TCO and return on investment (ROI), such as the impact inadequate network performance can have on worker productivity. Recent VDC Research studies on mobile TCO indicate that a single event can take away 72 minutes of worker productivity not to mention IT time.  And concern about network issues was among the top three reported drivers of increased mobility support costs. 

So, if you need push-to-talk capabilities, for example, make sure they are available over CBRS versus just Wi-Fi or 4G/5G. Will the entire feature set support our customers’ needs based on the applications or environments for which these devices are being built? These are the types of things we factored in when designing the TC26 and L10 devices.

Your Edge Blog Team: Why aren’t more devices designed to work with CBRS networks?

Bruce: Most consumer 4G and 5G smartphones can be provisioned on a non-CBRS private network using a properly loaded SIM/ESIM configuration. Of course, as discussed earlier, access to both a private and public network will still require dual access. 

Operating on a CBRS private network is a different matter. Although growing, CBRS support is not yet ubiquitous among consumer smartphones. SNS Telecom & IT predicts 90% of smartphone shipments in the U.S. will have CBRS support in 2023.

Your Edge Blog Team: Is there anything else technology decision makers should inquire about during a discovery workshop with a solution provider? What questions should they ask to be sure a CBRS solution will meet their needs?

Bruce: When it comes to CBRS and private networks, there is a huge number of questions you have to ask. First and foremost, does this wireless network technology meet my functional requirements (both now and in the future)? And does it meet my financial model’s target TCO/ROI?  When considering TCO/ROI, avoid being myopic and focused on the hardware acquisition costs. TCO analyses done by VDC Research and others show the hardware acquisition cost represents only a small fraction of the overall cost – often less than 10%. A partially connected employee is only partially productive, and the expense of lost productivity quickly overtakes any hardware savings. 

If you are considering overlaying an existing network with a CBRS solution, do consider the cost to administer any additional network solutions and any roaming requirements. Always make sure the proper devices are available for the solutions you are considering. Make sure the network’s security mechanisms meet your organization’s unique mobile security requirements. And, finally, make sure capacity can meet current and projected needs.

Remember CBRS and private networks often go hand-in-hand. CBRS fits well in covering relatively large spaces with minimal infrastructure, and it can offer the privacy and security required by many enterprises. The ability to provision as a “lightly licensed” GAA solution gives organizations a new tool in the wireless connectivity toolbox. 

Of course, Zebra is always here to meet your CBRS device requirements and to be your trusted technical advisor. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact your Zebra representative.

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Editor’s Note

Download this Next-Gen Wireless Solution Brief for more information on how CBRS, Wi-Fi 6/6E and 5G technologies may be used in enterprise environments. 

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Your Edge Blog Team
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