When Italy’s Del Conca Group decided to refresh the wireless system at its Tennessee tile factory, IT head Luca Chichiarelli started looking at alternatives to Wi-Fi. The speeds and bandwidth offered by Wi-Fi 6 were less interesting to Chichiarelli than reliability, network slicing and better connections to a public carrier network. So he started looking at private wireless solutions.

Del Conca was using linear Wi-Fi antennas, which concentrate a strong signal in a narrow range, to connect automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and forklifts to its Wi-Fi network. The AGVs move slabs of porcelain tile around the factory and are controlled by an application on Del Conca’s network. The forklifts are driven by workers and connected to Wi-Fi through attached computers that use a separate application on the network. 

Del Conca ended up choosing Celona as its private wireless provider, and it told the vendor there were several reasons it wanted to replace its Wi-Fi network with private wireless. First, it was time to refresh the 38 linear antennas. They required frequent adjustment and maintenance, and they did not perform well when the AGVs and forklifts congregated in one part of the factory. Chichiarelli expected less interference with cellular. Second, Chichiarelli wanted to use network slicing since the AGVs and forklifts run over different VLANs. The Celona orchestrator can map QoS policy for each traffic type to different VLANs, so Celona was a good fit here. Third, cellular coverage is bad at the factory and Chichiarelli wanted a private wireless provider that could eventually offer a better connection to a public carrier network. 

Celona and Del Conca are using CBRS spectrum under General Authorized Access. Federated Wireless’s Spectrum Access System software mediates access to the shared spectrum. Celona deployed eight indoor access points to cover the 425,000-square-foot facility, as well as four outdoor access points and an onsite evolved packet core (EPC).

In a statement, Chichiarelli said disruptions to the factory’s connectivity have gone down significantly since he switched to the private CBRS network. He said that unlike his Wi-Fi APs, the CBRS APs maintain stable connections even when the signal strength is low.

So far, the AGVs and the computers on the forklifts are the only equipment Del Conca has connected to the private network. The company has also purchased adapters that can connect a Celona SIM card to USB, so that technicians who come to service the forklifts can use a Celona SIM to connect to the private CBRS network.

Neutral host is the goal

Chichiarelli told Celona that Del Conca wanted its own network instead of a private network owned and operated by a wireless carrier. But he is interested in using the private network as a neutral host, meaning that it would connect to a public carrier network. He said Del Conca would be willing to switch carriers in order to get its private network to connect to a public network.

Convincing carriers to connect to private networks developed by other vendors is challenging from both a technical and a business perspective. All the major carriers offer their own private wireless solutions, and seamless connectivity to their own public networks can be a competitive advantage for them.

Verizon announced plans last year to use Celona’s hardware and software in a turnkey private wireless offering, but that does not mean the carrier will connect its network to all Celona’s customers. Sources close to Celona said the vendor is currently in live enterprise trials with T-Mobile in the U.S. to enable neutral host services.

Celona marketing director David Callisch confirmed that neutral host is on the roadmap. “We’ve completed a very successful trial with a Tier 1 MNO and a large national retailer and validated the interoperation of their public cellular service with our 5G LAN system but haven’t yet announced any commercial offerings,” he said. “I think that should happen by the end of 2023 or early 2024.”

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