Variants of private wireless networks have been around for more than a decade in the U.S. And the big wireless carriers have deployed thousands of these networks to enterprises. But it wasn’t until the auction of Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum that the topic of private wireless took off like wildfire.

Arvin Singh, head of Global 5G Innovation with Verizon Business, said there are two types of cellular networks for enterprises that have been in place for more than a decade. The first is a distributed antenna system (DAS) that uses small cells. Large carriers like Verizon have built a lot of these networks for enterprise customers and public sector clients. “It’s private in the sense it’s on your campus,” said Singh. “But it’s a public network in that your devices and users are connecting to the nodes indoors, but the traffic connects to the macro outdoors.”

A second type of private network has also been in place for more than a decade, said Singh. It’s a cellular private network, using the same RAN as commercial traffic, but Verizon provides some separation in the packet core to give the enterprise customer “a different path, kind of like an HOV lane,” he said. This has been popular with customers in industries that are regulated and require a degree of separation from commercial traffic. Examples would be utilities, banks and some healthcare organizations.

For both these types of enterprise wireless networks, Verizon uses its existing licensed spectrum.

But the availability of CBRS spectrum (both licensed and unlicensed) and evolved standards has caused a boom in private wireless in the U.S.

“You now you have 193 CBRS Alliance members, and everybody is talking about it,” said Singh.

A problem with private wireless

People are mostly enthused and positive about private wireless, but Mark Lacy, vice president of Carrier Relations with Connectivity Wireless, said there is an issue that isn’t being talked about.

Lacy said that Connectivity Wireless, which is an in-building and large venue, neutral host company, is seeing enterprises contract for private wireless networks but not making any plans for the ongoing management of those networks.

“It’s just not a component that gets discussed a lot,” said Lacy. “It’s no different than when you buy a car. You need to think about — things are going to break and make sure you have somebody to take care of it. The IT department is not going to be able to have qualifications to make improvements or repairs to a private cellular 4G or 5G network.”

A lot of times the private wireless networks are being built by construction companies such as MasTec, Commnet, QuadGen, Pierson Wireless and Telamon. 

But Lacy said after the network is deployed, oftentimes there is no plan to maintain it. “In order to maintain, you have to have a NOC and technicians available,” he said. “That’s a completely different skill set.”

Singh said Lacy’s point is valid. “We do run into scenarios where somebody got CBRS spectrum and built their own network.” He said many organizations start with a simple, table-top design. But when they start deploying at scale they quickly run into problems such as stability issues or not being able to configure things properly. Then they end up reaching out to carriers such as Verizon because they don’t want to burn their own limited IT resources. “RF is not everybody’s cup of tea,” said Singh.

For its part, Verizon Business touts its ability to offer a turn-key managed network. It works with its partners Celona, Ericsson and Nokia.

“All of it is fully managed end-to-end,” said Singh. “When we do the design, deployment and managed services end-to-end, we technically play a role of integrator. Those that have limited RF expertise and embark on the journey without a steady hand like a major telco, those are where we’ve seen the struggles.”

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