Everything is built to connect to the internet, so why can’t I?

Shared spectrum, recently opened by the FCC, paves the way to extend LTE coverage in a way similar to your existing wireless network

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It’s a great time to be in networking. Anytime we connect an object or an experience to the network, we change its nature and increase its value. The network effect of connecting more and more things in more ways is driving exponential benefit to the pioneers who are imagining the many new possibilities. The voice-controlled home assistant, connected car, connected spare bedroom and other innovations are early examples that we already take for granted.

The age of the network is here. This means the network gets built into every product and service, and that requires the network to be everywhere and you can connect to it all the time. Mobile has gotten pretty darn good in recent years. Unless, of course, you’re on a certain floor or in a certain area of a large building. Dead zones still occur regularly behind commercial-grade walls and energy-efficient windows.

+ Also on Network World: Multiple U.S. trials underway for shared 3.5GHz wireless spectrum +

If you’re the person responsible for making sure there is useful connectivity in every corner of an office building, hotel, shopping mall, public venue or university (or if you’re someone who needs to use it), high-quality connectivity is critical. And if your organization is one of the many driving new value through the power of network connections embedded into your products and user experiences, then usable connectivity at all times is fundamental to your company’s success.

Thankfully, shared spectrum, recently opened by the FCC, has paved the way to extend LTE coverage in a way similar to your existing wireless network. No licensed spectrum ownership required. There's more capacity than today’s Wi-Fi. And it’s open and ready to reach multiple mobile operators on one access network.

Shared spectrum sounds good, right?

Did you now that 80 percent of mobile consumption takes place indoors and it’s the fastest growing in use? While users can switch to a local Wi-Fi network where the mobile signal is weak, this delivers only data access and not mobile calls. If you are in a building as a guest, tracking down temporary login information can take an unexpected amount of time while your request for the guest Wi-Fi password reverberates down the line of offices. And I’m sure you’ve been to a busy venue such as a conference where both your Wi-Fi and LTE options were so crowded that they were almost unusable.   

That’s changing now with the FCC’s ruling on shared spectrum, known as Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS). It’s not just the U.S. looking at options for shared spectrum use; other countries are closely following the developments and are planning similar designations.

To progress the technology to make better connectivity a reality, dozens of industry players have come together to form the CBRS Alliance. The goal is to get your phone to work indoors as well as it does outdoors by increasing the available wireless capacity.  

That, in itself, is exciting for office workers. But CBRS is good news for administrators, as well, because it can significantly reduce the cost and time of expanding wireless coverage to increase capacity and reach dead zones. Plus, these new solutions can act as a “neutral host,” providing LTE small cell access to multiple mobile operators in places these networks don’t reach today.

Do we need LTE coverage in buildings?

Of course, some of you might think: "Why should I add LTE coverage to my building?" The answer is three-fold: 1) consistent mobile connectivity is an increasingly expected experience, 2) your users are downloading more and more bandwidth-hungry apps that can easily congest your existing Wi-Fi network, and 3) perhaps most important, your business team can explore new services to enhance revenue and customer experiences.

So, while great LTE service inside your building traditionally has not been your issue, users’ expectations are changing the game. Already, renters, travelers, shoppers, students and fans are choosing to go only where they have great signal for their phone.

And when they are in your building, they expect all their apps to just work, never mind what havoc their bandwidth-hungry apps may be wreaking in your network. CBRS technology is a good answer because unlike Wi-Fi, CBRS has mechanisms to centrally coordinate the spectrum, reducing interference within the small cell. You may ask, so what? Less interference means more wireless capacity than today’s Wi-Fi to handle the peak traffic your users might load on your network.   

More bandwidth means you can also offer new services. From my perspective, this is the most exciting benefit of all. Anytime the network can directly drive innovation, the more valuable it becomes—and as a network administrator, the more valuable you become.

For example, the super-fast Wi-Fi in the new Sacramento Kings sports arena provides innovative fan services with a mobile app that is location-aware and leverages sensors, data and services throughout the venue. Fans can reserve parking, watch replays from multiple camera angles, find out the length of concession lines and even get answers to their questions with a messaging bot.

How could CBRS help you improve your customers’ experience through similar innovations? What may be possible when we combine plentiful, high-speed wireless with new technologies such as augmented reality? You can quickly see a world where the IT department can create or support whole new lines of business in which the network is embedded in the product and the experience, and the data collected and delivered further enhances the value of that product or experience. But the real nirvana is when all this happens and the customers can create value for and among themselves, using the connectivity you’ve embedded in the product and the experience. This creates an exponential impact on value, and often on revenue and market share as well.

How does CBRS technology work?

With CBRS technology, subscribers access their mobile networks over LTE small cell access points deployed in the building and using the shared spectrum. These small cells could stand alone or in some cases, even clip on to existing Wi-Fi access points, making use of the same power and software networking infrastructure for management and control. The local network then carries the traffic to a local offload point and out to a neutral host service to reach mobile operator networks.

What’s the catch? I would be remiss if I didn’t share what’s left to do. The technology does require a new handset chip, so existing phones won’t work on it. But the wide scope of industry members of the CBRS Alliance are making sure this will happen sooner rather than later. And while the top four U.S. mobile operators have joined the CBRS Alliance, business arrangements must still be figured out, especially abroad.

Still, network owners and administrators have a powerful new technology on the horizon. It’s up to you to show your organization what may be possible, and not too far down the road. As you plan your wireless network over the next year or so, you’ll want to keep promising CBRS solutions in mind. Here’s a helpful checklist to enable you to do that:

  1. Discuss the possibilities of new customer services with your business partners.
  2. Plan now for pilots and deployment budgets.
  3. Make sure your wireless team is aware of CBRS-related technology and is vetting it as a viable solution.
  4. Talk to your existing wireless vendor about their plans and whether your existing equipment and management will support CBRS.
  5. For any immediate Wi-Fi purchases, ask about the future capability to support CBRS technologies to extend LTE coverage and be a neutral host for multiple mobile operators.
  6. Try to get the basic connectivity and automation challenges solved so that you and your team can focus on how to use the network to add value to applications, products, services and customer experience. This is when the fun starts and the revenue impact really begins.

We are in an exciting period for networking. New technologies such as CBRS can change not only the way we think about what a network can do, but by extension as the network is embedded into the products, they can change what is possible for the entire business and for all its customers. And perhaps most important, it puts you and your team at the heart of this transformation, provided you build the right skills and deploy the right technology to power these innovations.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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