AURORA, COLORADO–Private LTE may be attracting attention, but private cellular networks are not a new model, according to industry experts at a Besen Group seminar on private LTE ahead of the Competitive Carriers Association’s Mobile Carriers Show this week in Denver.
“This isn’t actually a new market,” said David Howgill, president of Huckworthy, which does network design, planning and consulting for private networks. His company, he added, has been doing private 2G and 3G networks for years, and LTE is just the latest variant of cellular which offers more capabilities.
There are two reasons that people are interested in private LTE deployments, Howgill said: they don’t have decent LTE coverage currently, or they want privacy for their data and visibility. The former category is a sizable one, he noted. The GSMA projects that LTE connections will account for 57% of total cellular connections by 2025 and its numbers for 2018 estimate that 79% of the world’s population is covered by LTE — so there are many people who either don’t have LTE yet, and those who do may not have high-quality coverage. Users who need to be confident that they are controlling the collection and visibility of their data include government agencies, the military, first responders and corporations with significant investments in intellectual property, Howgill said.
Some of the challenges for private LTE include roaming relationships outside of their bubble of coverage, and having sufficient device numbering resources as well as access to spectrum — which could come either if a company acquires its own spectrum resources (potentially through the Citizens Broadband Radio Service auction in 2020, which will offer county-sized licenses) or through making arrangements to use a spectrum owner’s holdings at particular locations — which could offer opportunities for carriers of all sizes a new opportunity to monetize their spectrum holdings.
In addition, the extent to which individual agencies or companies will want to operate their own LTE networks is unclear and offers another chance for network operators to offer managed network services.
“LTE introduces a lot of engineering challenges that [companies]are just not used to dealing with,” said Jeff Johnston, senior economist with CoBank.
Given the number of available technologies for services such as the internet of things, there is also “quite bit of harmony that needs to be created to help the end customer meet their IoT objectives,” said John O’Malley, president of Rockfleet Advisors. Smaller operators can find IoT-related opportunities in device management, integration services, being the local IoT contact for companies which operate in multiple areas and finding other ways to leverage the fact that they have local relationships and easier on-the-ground access than larger competitors. O’Malley also said that rural and regional operators have an advantage in that within their coverage area, they are more likely to have a manageable number of specific IoT use cases to support, while the nationwide networks are expected to support anything and everything.
Howgill said for companies interested in launching private LTE networks, it is “well worth talking to at least two or three people who’ve actually stubbed their toes on it” — because the people who have deployed such networks and are still doing it have learned necessary lessons and successfully navigated deployments.
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