Rajeev Shah, VP Federated Wireless, explains CBRS ecosystem

Rajeev Shah Federated WirelessFederated Wireless focuses on the Spectrum Allocation Server (SAS) element of CBRS but has been very influential in the evolving wider ecosystem. We spoke with their CEO last year on their plans, and now catch up with their Vice President, Products & Marketing Rajeev Shah. He outlined the current state of CBRS, explained each market segment and highlighted what to expect in the coming months.

Where does Federated Wireless fit into the CBRS ecosystem?

We have developed a standalone Spectrum Controller product launched last September. It’s built to run on the AWS Cloud, making it inherently scalable, resilient and reliable. In recent months we’ve been running live field trials with several large network operators, refining and maturing our solution. Our partner program announcements at MWC highlighted that we are a component of a much larger ecosystem rather than purely a standalone product.

We’ve closed $42 million of Series B funding adding three strategic investors:

  • Charter (the cable company)
  • Arris (who own Ruckus Wireless)
  • American Tower.

All are now strongly represented on our board and have already provided helpful strategic direction.

We’ve successfully tested and integrated over 30 different CBSD (small cell) vendors and expect that to reach 75 within the next 18 months.

Rollout of our ESC (Environment Sensor Network) has been split into two phases, prioritising some markets such as Florida, Manhattan, Los Angeles. We’ve leased sites for 50% of sites for Phase 1 already and will have completed all leasing agreements, installed all ESC hardware and network connectivity by end of June. ESC hardware certification is happening in parallel, so we can enable existing sites as soon as the paperwork is approved.

This puts us ahead of some other SAS vendors. We’ve benefited from expertise of American Towers but ESC sensors are typically not located at existing cellsites partly because they need to be tracking signals from naval radar out at sea rather than covering urban population hot spots.

At launch, this provides ESC coverage for over half the US continental population, expanding nationwide by end 2018.

Which are the target markets and sweet spots for CBRS?

We are addressing five separate market segments in parallel. We expected these to have different timeframes but have found that all have pent-up demand and have progressed rapidly in the past six months. Spectrum is recognised as such an important asset. Up to now, dedicated spectrum has either required billions of dollars in auction fees or a government mandate for a particular application. CBRS opens up access to the smallest business and applications, introducing opportunities that previously simply weren’t financially viable.

MNOs. Major cellular operators have made no reservations about their enthusiasm for additional spectrum. Verizon have been particularly vocal about their aspirations for CBRS, actively trialling for the past six months (we are one of the two SAS providers involved). They have been evaluating how dynamic spectrum allocation works with multiple operators in the same geographic areas, and how carrier aggregation performs when bonded with licenced bands. I would think they are likely to supplement existing licenced spectrum with additional capacity when outdoors but operate exclusively using CBRS when indoors.

These trials are now moving on to the next phase. The critical factor for widespread commercial launch will be the availability of compatible smartphones. I’d expect the first MNOs to go live before end 2018 or at the latest 1H2019.

In some ways, LAA shows the potential of CBRS for MNOs. The unlicensed spectrum at 5GHz is free but uncoordinated. T-Mobile USA’s LAA trial results were very revealing – the technology can perform extremely well and achieved 1Gbps in places where the 5GHz band is uncongested but struggles in highly congested areas. It highlights that if you could achieve carrier aggregation with additional spectrum everywhere, then huge capacity expansion is possible everywhere. The more controlled and centrally managed CBRS spectrum provides that, making it very attractive.

MSOs, the US cable operators, are very public about their CBRS ambitions and how CBRS is core to their strategy. They operate as MVNOs (Virtual Network Operators) at the moment, offloading as much as they can from their partner/host networks using Wi-Fi today. They want to create their own LTE only coverage without spending billions on spectrum. They are in a good position with their own fibre assets both indoors and out. We’ve seen a lot of announcements about strand mounted small cells (i.e., weather-proof modules enclosing small cells that are hung from the street wires to provide coverage in the neighbourhood).

MSOs are the most advanced with their field trials. Charter have worked with 10+ small cell vendors, deploying hundreds of CBSDs (CBRS Small Cells) in two cities over the past six months. They are shortly to light up a couple of other markets. I’d say they have performed the most rigorous testing, which identified a few areas for improvement that we’ve now implemented.

Neutral Host/Enterprise. The business case for in-building cellular has been challenging for existing solutions such as DAS and standalone small cells. Typically operators have looked for an anchor tenant. CBRS turns that business model upside down, allowing the building owner to become the anchor tenant and build a good ROI plan based on their Enterprise tenant requirements. This can start with wireless applications unsuitable for Wi-Fi but independent of regular cellular smartphone services. Examples might include those in a Mall such as controlling signage, wireless point-of-sale equipment, video cameras etc. CBRS could support Private LTE networks from the outset based on IoT applications that are later integrated with regular cellular operator networks when the time is right. American Tower has a lot of assets in this area.

We were pleasantly surprised at the extent of demand from the Enterprise segment, hosting ten times the number of meetings at MWC as expected with a combination of neutral hosts, standalone enterprises who are all ready to invest immediately. They want to light up public areas from malls to container ports to stadiums – even an airline wanting to use it at every gate for downloading aircraft data after each flight. All expect it to be much more reliable and robust than Wi-Fi.

Wireless broadband services. Wireless ISPs (WISPs) have been around for many years, delivering broadband Internet using WiMAX in the 3.5GHz spectrum (the 50MHz in the upper part of the 150MHz CBRS band). The FCC has already mandated that these all migrate onto CBRS when their current licences expire (many in 2019) and connect to a SAS for spectrum assignment. Technically they aren’t mandated to switch from WiMAX to LTE (and our SAS can allocate spectrum for WiMAX use where required), but these companies are attracted by the more standardised LTE and associated benefits (lower cost/wider range of suppliers/products). The higher performance of CBRS LTE gives much more bang for your buck in terms of Mbps per dollar.

How is Federated Wireless differentiating from other SAS vendors?

It’s true that the underlying functionality of CBRS spectrum allocation has been standardised by the WIN Forum so that every SAS uses the same fundamental algorithms and interfaces. There are many nuances on how our solution has been designed for scalability, robustness and performance but these alone don’t highlight our longer term vision.

We want to enable the CBRS ecosystem to succeed so that all participants benefit and share its success. Previously small cell vendors just haven’t been able to win business with major networks due to the barriers of equipment approval, system integration and sales cycle.

At the same time, we’ve seen that network operators want simpler methods to enable access to a larger number of potential vendors. Pre-integration testing and certification provide a means to bypass today’s lengthy processes involving cellcos test beds.

We believe the industry needs to adopt much more streamlined and automated approach to approving new products and new software releases. Just look how successful this has been in the AWS (Amazon Web Services) model for Cloud based applications.

So we’ve developed a bunch of automated tools complete with clear written documentation, from training tools to sandbox testing. This comprehensive development environment tracks test results against each software version and trouble ticket. We complement this with a dedicated support team of experts in LTE, spectrum and wireless networks.

I’d agree there is value if the CBRS Alliance introduced a full certification program (similar to that of the Wi-Fi Alliance) but feel we need to do something sooner. Our partners want to do things quicker and expand the scope of testing to cover more than just basic SAS/CBSD interoperability.

Any final comments?

While I’m sure you’d expect me to be very enthusiastic about the potential that CBRS offers, it’s much more than simply enabling LTE in new markets and applications. I can envisage a much wider participation from many new entrants who contribute innovative components and products that will make our lives and businesses more effective, efficient and rewarding.

In a few years, we’ll look back on CBRS and be asking why we didn’t do this earlier.

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