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Edge Computing Could Help Both Carriers, Tower Owners

By J. Sharpe Smith

Edge computing is becoming part of the network conversation as more companies go public with their solutions for wireless communications. Placing data center infrastructure, i.e. content, at the edge of the network will give immediate access to the internet to billions of mobile devices, such as smartphones, medical devices, industrial controls and IoT sensors.

But that vision of the future goes out a few years.

What carriers need right now is a way to cut their backhaul costs which have risen because of the increased traffic caused by unlimited data plans, Greg Pettine, founder and EVP of business development, said in a phone interview with AGL eDigest.

“The [carriers] know that if they can get some of the content out beyond their core data centers out to the wireless edge, they can significantly maintain their operating expenses regarding fiber to the tower. That’s big,” Pettine said.

Also important to today’s carrier operations is the performance of the network, which can be negatively affected by traffic congestion. “The [carriers] have admitted to throttling back users of certain applications, such as YouTube, Facebook, Netflix and Amazon,” Pettine said. “This results in churn, which they don’t want to happen.”

EdgeMicro’s answer to the traffic congestion problem is to locate the data from these websites in a micro datacenter positioned at the cell site or a central office or a mobile telephone switching office. Then, when a data request comes into the tower, the system redirects it to the micro datacenter to get the data, instead of backhauling it to the regional data center.

The organizations may take advantage of storing data in a micro datacenter because they are the ones driving the most content across the internet. Those companies including Facebook with Facebook Live; Instagram; Google with YouTube, Akamai Technologies, which is used by the ad networks; Amazon and Netflix.

Data traffic in EdgeMicro’s network-neutral micro data centers is managed by a technology known as Tower Traffic Xchange (TTX), which is a Local IPAccess (LIPA) solution that combines all the necessary LTE network components into a single, low-power, collocated appliance.

EdgeMicro gave a preview of its TTX and micro data center at the Competitive Carriers Association’s (CCA) Annual Convention earlier this year in Fort Worth.

The company’s medium-term plan is to deploy at 500 tower sites in the next five years. First, 30 micro datacenters will be deployed at busy multi-tenant towers that serve 100,000 people in the next 18 months in tier-two cities, which don’t have a lot of backhaul, content or ISP peering.

“That will provide us with the data to proliferate our micro datacenters,” Pettine said. “EdgeMicro’s prefabricated micro data centers will be deployed at ultimately thousands of cell towers globally.”

EdgeMicro’s collocation model is based on an 8-foot by 20-foot container with six racks. A quarter rack would be sold to each content provider, which works out to 24 customers in each container.

“We are in various stages with the [carriers], introducing it into their labs for testing. Ultimately, they need to start field test the acquisition of data,” Pettine said.

Micro Datacenters: Good for Towers?

What is in it for tower companies? Providing micro datacenters will make towers stickier, reducing carrier churn. Tower companies would make good strategic partners and could fund the effort as an alternative cash flow.

“Tower companies get increased rent and have the potentially to be strategically aligned in bringing in innovative cash flow,” Pettine said, “But they don’t know anything about data centers and that is where we come in. We understand the collocation model from a datacenter perspective: the cost-to-build and opex.”

Tower companies have already shown an interest in micro datacenters. For example, Crown  Castle International is a minor investor in Vapor IO, whose Project Volutus enables cloud providers, wireless carriers and web-scale companies to deliver cloud-based edge computing applications via a network of micro data centers deployed at the base of cell tower sites.

“The cloud of the future will extend past today’s large, centralized data centers. The next generation cloud will follow your car. It will follow your phone. It will follow your sensors. It will be distributed and data driven and everywhere,” Alan Bock, vice president of corporate development & strategy, Crown Castle.

Vertical Bridge announced in late September that it has partnered with its sister company DataBank to host edge computing at the base of cell towers. Additionally, AT&T has announced it also has micro datacenter plans.

One pundit has claimed that the Cloud is “dead.” While that may be an overstatement, the global market for micro data centers is certainly alive and projected to be $8.47 billion by 2022, according to a report on MarketstoMarkets Research.

J. Sharpe Smith and the senior editor of the AGL eDigest. He joined AGL in 2007 as contributing editor to the magazine and as editor of eDigest email newsletter. He has 27 years of experience writing about industrial communications, paging, cellular, small cells, DAS and towers. Previously, he worked for the Enterprise Wireless Alliance as editor of the Enterprise Wireless Magazine. Before that, he edited the Wireless Journal for CTIA and he began his wireless journalism career with Phillips Publishing, now Access Intelligence. Sharpe Smith may be contacted at: [email protected].

Florida Cell Towers Show Marked Resiliency

By J. Sharpe Smith

A temporary cell site rises above a crumpled tower on Marco Island, a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico off of southwest Florida. (Photo: Verizon)

In face of the most powerful storm recorded in the Atlantic, the tower industry showed that it could take a punch and come back swinging.

Just five days after Hurricane Irma blew through Florida, Verizon’s network stood firm, with close to 97 percent of its facilities in service.

“Our network engineers have been working around the clock to restore service and make repairs to the network, and they won’t rest until the remaining 3 percent of sites are back serving customers,” Russ Preite, Verizon president – southeast market, wrote in a blog post.

The reason cell towers performed so well in the aftermath of Irma has to do with a corporate culture at Verizon that stresses preparedness, according Christopher Desmond, principal engineer for Verizon’s network and in-house drone expert.

“We have a formalized response to adverse weather preparedness with generators, backup generators, and partnerships with refueling and with drone companies,” Desmond said. “We devote an enormous amount of attention to resiliency and redundancy. We elevate equipment, shelters. We ruggedize antennas, electronics and towers, so the network will be available as the area recovers.”

As the storm approached, refueling and drone teams were staged and ready to go. Concrete and steel reinforced “super switches” across in Florida, built to withstand a CAT 5 hurricane, stood ready to keep the system on the air.

Hurricane preparations are a nationwide effort. Verizon brought personnel from South Carolina to support Florida and from Louisiana to support Texas. Network personnel were flown from California to the New York metro area back when Super Storm Sandy hit the Atlantic seaboard in 2012.

“Our Verizon technicians and personnel on the network side support each other across the country in the wake of any event,” Desmond said. “They were able to restore the network in record time.

Verizon’s long-term preparation with power generators and refueling allowed the majority of its cell sites to remain in-service without commercial power. In some cases mobile generators and temporary solutions were deployed for service. Microwave technology was also added where fiber was temporarily interrupted to some cell sites.

“We had hundreds of towers on generator or backup battery power at one point, but still providing service to our customers. That too is in the teens. The network resiliency is a testament to the team’s ability to go out and effect repairs,” he added.

Verizon continues to support government officials and first responders with ongoing recovery efforts statewide, as well as those in the community who need assistance with charging devices and Internet access.

AT&T Responds to Irma with Equipment, Personnel and Support for Public Safety

AT&T Response Team (Courtesy AT&T)

To restore communications after Hurricane Irma blew through Florida, AT&T deployed 3,000 personnel, 14 cells on light trucks, three emergency communications vehicles providing satellite-based VoIP, Ethernet and Wi-Fi service. The effort also includes mobile command centers, hazmat response vehicles and charging stations.

AT&T is supporting the more than 15,000 public safety responders to Hurricane Irma with priority communications through Dynamic Traffic Management. “We have firemen coming in from across the country and without our communications lines they cannot talk to each other. They are relying on our cell service,” one AT&T employee said. “If we are not placing the strand and cable in the air, no one’s got communications.”

One portable cell site is stationed at the state emergency operations center (EOC), two are positioned in Naples to specifically support public safety and another four of the portable cell sites have been deployed to the Florida Keys. Network assets are also being staged at a local EOC in Miami-Dade.

Even as Hurricane Maria and other events shift the nation’s focus, AT&T, Verizon and others will continue on helping the local populace pick up the pieces, according to Joe Nergon, AT&T Technical Field Services.

“We got a lot of work to do. Hurricane Irma was a huge hurricane,” Nergon said. “We are starting down here and we’re going to move to as many neighborhoods as we can to get this restored for our customers.”

J. Sharpe Smith is senior editor of the AGL eDigest. He joined AGL in 2007 as contributing editor to the magazine and as editor of eDigest email newsletter. He has 27 years of experience writing about industrial communications, paging, cellular, small cells, DAS and towers. Previously, he worked for the Enterprise Wireless Alliance as editor of the Enterprise Wireless Magazine. Before that, he edited the Wireless Journal for CTIA and he began his wireless journalism career with Phillips Publishing, now Access Intelligence. 

Drones Give Wireless a Boost in Harvey Recovery

By J. Sharpe Smith

Expected to be one of the most expensive storms to strike the United States, Hurricane Harvey was also the proving ground for how drones can make the recovery process for the communications infrastructure more efficient and less expensive.

In advance of Hurricane Harvey, AT&T had devised a plan to deploy crews to a San Antonio staging area. As the storm hit and moved on, the crews were dispatched to the affected areas. Drones were deployed initially in the Corpus Christi/Rockport area where Harvey made initial landfall after the storm moved inland. The carrier had 25 teams with drones in the field to define repair crew engagement.

“The drones allowed us to have a quicker, safer, more efficient response to the hurricane,” said Art Pregler, director, National Mobility Systems at AT&T and member of the NATE UAS Committee. “We brought in crews and flew the drones and were able to quickly assess any damage to our towers. We could better inform our crews of which sites to go to, the priorities, the extent of any repairs that were needed.”

In Houston, just getting to a tower was a challenge due to the flooding, so drones were also used to define access routes to AT&T network elements.

“We just have to be in visual line of sight of the tower, so if the site is under water we can fly the drone over the water to the site. There were quite a few instances where drones had to fly over flooding waters as we examined our wireline elements, Pregler said.

“It proved to be very effective. Our drone crews worked directly with our repair crews. They were synched up on them, providing them with the information they needed when they needed it,” Pregler added.

While the result of the drone deployment during Harvey was quite positive, AT&T will study the cost versus the benefit of using drones as it plans future deployments.

“We are looking at that value of the data collected and comparing it with the cost of collecting that data,” Pregler said. “We will consider the complexities of getting permissions to fly and interacting with first responders.”

Some Towers Were Damaged but None Knocked Over

DataWing Global, a San Antonio, Texas-based aerial data collection company, did reconnaissance for two major tower owner after Harvey. The drone company, which has an internal staff of 11 pilots and a total network of 160 pilots nationwide, set up a command center in Mattis, Texas, on Aug. 31 with its drone crews and a total of nine pilots and spent the next five days investigating a little more than 100 structures.

“One of the values our investigation was finding structures that were not damaged,” said Jimmy Taylor, director, advisory board at DataWing Aerial Analytics. “Reporting that status to the owners allowed them to direct their crews to the sites that were damaged.”

Damage that DataWing did report included stripped coaxial cable, antennas that were hanging from the structure and flooding around the compounds. Taylor noted that no towers were knocked down by the storm.

“Tower companies have done a great job of building strong towers and reinforcing them as loading increased,” Taylor said. “The result is towers that will withstand forceful storms and winds like this.”

The Evolution of Public Safety: FirstNet and LTE

By Don Bishop

LTE’s designers made provisions for functions that have appeal for use with public safety communications. Manufacturers probably will include them when they make devices for use on the FirstNet public safety broadband wireless network.

With AT&T’s construction of a nationwide public safety broadband network on behalf of the First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet, everyone in the United States will have network availability, according to Christopher Schenck, director of legal for Dali Wireless. The Long Term Evolution (LTE) high-speed wireless data network will use Band 14 700-MHz radio-frequency spectrum for a subscriber-based system. “Any state can opt into it or opt out of it,” Schenck said. “But states that opt out have to offer a state network compatible with the nationwide network.”

AT&T may use the Band 14 spectrum for commercial cellular traffic when it isn’t being used for public safety communications. Schenk said a lot of thought has to go into making sure that first responders have access to the network during an emergency. Steps to take include preempting commercial communications to give priority and access control to first responders.

“If the network is down and I need to get in touch with other first responders wherever I am, that’s where proximity services and direct communication among devices come in. With direct discovery, our devices can figure out that we’re both there. You can communicate one-to-one or one-to-many.”

— Christopher Schenck, director of legal for Dali Wireless.

Several municipalities and other areas built early versions of 700-MHz LTE systems, and none shares spectrum with commercial network operators. Schenck said he learned that during the 2016 Rose Parade in Pasadena, California, the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications (LA-RICS) public safety broadband network saw no degradation of its accessibility and throughput. Yet, on the commercial networks, coverage levels went down when floats went by and observers would send video they recorded. According to the LA-RICS website, the organization’s broadband network will migrate to the FirstNet network, eventually.

With LTE proximity services (ProSe), public safety devices can initiate communication without performing a discovery procedure, because it is assumed that public safety personnel know each other’s whereabouts and can thus determine whether the other person is reachable for direct communication. Source: Nokia

Schenck said the LTE technology the FirstNet network will use a global alternative to APCO Project 25 digital radio communications and the Trans-European Trunked Radio (TETRA), which are not compatible with one another. He said LTE is a proven, secure system that is already in use with cell phones — and that’s part of its appeal, because public safety agencies may be able to use market power for better pricing on public safety products.

LTE’s high data rates enable critical features that Schenck said public safety agencies can use to their advantage. He said one such function would be location tracking — every first responder would have a location tracker on him or her when carrying LTE devices. Video capability will allow dispatchers and commanders at the station to watch events unfold in the field through body cameras. “Officers will be able to share video with one another, so everybody knows what’s going on from every different perspective,” Schenck said.

The ability for sensors worn by firefighters to send biometric information will help in monitoring their health and safety while they fight fires, Schenck said. Health care providers with patients in ambulances can send health information to the hospital for doctors to evaluate.

“The state of Ohio has a FirstNet group with a website where they made a video game with some augmented reality that allows participants to see what firefighters see,” Schenck said. “The game provides a map of a burning building and thermal imaging. You can see what firefighters face without such information, and then pop up the map and the thermal imaging to see the huge difference it makes in navigating the building.”

Proximity Services

Schenck identified two functions added to LTE specifically for public safety because they’re not part of the typical commercial architecture. One is proximity services. “If the network is down and I need to get in touch with other first responders wherever I am, that’s where proximity services and direct communication among devices come in.” Schenck said. “With direct discovery, our devices can figure out that we’re both there. You can communicate one-to-one or one-to-many.”

A second public safety function is relay services. The example Schenck gave is that if one person’s LTE device cannot reach a radio access point, such as a tower outside of a building, a second LTE device in the hands of another person could relay the signal if the second person’s LTE device can reach the tower. And, nearby LTE devices can relay among themselves if none of them can reach the network.

Schenck said that so far as he knows, none of the wireless device manufacturers are building units with the relay capability, but it is written into the LTE specification. “The relay capability is necessary for LTE to really do the job that it needs to do,” he said. “Another thing that was added for LTE is group communications. When you think about first responders, you think a lot about push-to-talk and the need for one first responder to talk with everyone else on the team, so LTE’s designers added functions for groups.”

With group communication comes the need for priority, preemption and control, Schenck said. “If I’m a regular firefighter and my boss wants me to shut up and wants to say something else, he’s got to be able to do that,” he said. “You have to be able to give people access and give people priority over other people, and all that is built into LTE.”

Mission critical push-to-talk is another special function that Schecnk said the LTE specification includes for public safety. It mimics the push-to-talk function in P25 and TETRA technology. A FirstNet testing laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, will focus on testing public safety features on LTE devices. “They want to make sure the mission-critical push-to-talk function and other public safety functions really work,” he said.

In partnership with NIST, the test lab will issue certifications for individual devices. Schenck said the lab also will provide training for first responders to use the various LTE devices.

Schenck spoke of an early adopter of LTE for public safety communications in Ohio, saying that it took about four months to set up the three sites involved. In view of how long it took to set up three sites, he questioned how long it would take to set up a nationwide network. He said the nationwide network would take time because it will be complicated and expensive.

Meanwhile, Schenck described tests conducted with the Ohio system, including a simulation of a response to a report of a missing person in a shopping mall. “With LTE, they were able to share a picture of the person with all the cops in the mall almost immediately, transmitting from one cop to all of the rest of them,” he said. “They were able to find the missing person in four minutes. In the old days, the search would have involved handing out printed photos to everyone or using a verbal description over voice radio, which isn’t quite the same thing.”

A second test simulated a park employee in a national forest pressing the man-down button on the LTE device. “Because the LTE device revealed the person was in a forest, instead of just sending an ambulance, they sent an emergency medical technician on an all-terrain vehicle,” Schenck said.

Schenck reported that the participants in the Ohio test said they liked the ability to share videos directly with each other instead of having to go through dispatch. He said they liked the speed of the data and the clarity of the images in the video. “Everything is high-definition 4K video, basically, so it’s awesome,” Schenck said. “What they disliked was the short battery life. Using so much data draws down the battery. They also complained about background noise when using the LTE devices outdoors. That probably was because the equipment had not been optimized. LTE has more than enough capability to deal with that.”

The Ohio system, which was sponsored by the state government and the Greene County government, has since been decommissioned to vacate the frequencies that the FCC designated for the FirstNet network.

Among other considerations that Schenck mentioned were the National Fire Protection Association’s fire code requirements for indoor wireless coverage, the potential for interference between FirstNet operations in the 700-MHz band and cellular operations in nearby bands, and whether distributed antenna systems should carry both commercial and public safety communications.

Schenck said he hopes to see some construction of the national network and the roll-out of LTE devices as early as next year. “The market has to get to the point where it makes sense for people to do it, and it’s not there yet,” he said. “It is going to take time, and there will be some overlap between the new network and existing P25 and TETRA systems that provide functionality already. As time goes by, public safety communications can shift over to LTE.”

On March 27, Christopher Schenck, director of legal for Dali Wireless, spoke at the International Wireless Communications Expo’s Network Infrastructure Forum during the in-building wireless session moderated by the author.

Don Bishop is the executive editor of AGL Magazine. He joined AGL Media Group in 2004. He was the founding editor of AGL Magazine, the AGL Bulletin email newsletter (now AGL eDigest) and AGL Small Cell Magazine.

A frequent moderator and host for AGL Conferences, Don writes and otherwise obtains editorial content published in AGL Magazine, AGL eDigest and the AGL Media Group website.

AT&T Couples Video Analytics with Drones

By The Editors of AGL

The video analytics team at AT&T Labs has joined forces with our National Drone Team to bring automated cell tower inspections a step closer to reality as it maintains its inventory of 65,000 cell towers.

“With automation in the mix, we can do the job faster, better and more efficiently. With regulatory changes and further research, we hope that automated inspections will be possible,” said Mazin Gilbert – vice president of Advanced Technology at AT&T Labs.

AT&T envisions a future where a drone stationed by a cell tower will charges itself, inspects the tower, communicates the condition of the tower and repairs it.

“What we’re investigating is similar to what’s been happening with driverless cars. The ultimate goal is full automation, but we’re not there yet,” Gilbert said. “We created a deep learning-based algorithm that analyzes video footage and shows promise in detecting defects and anomalies. We’re investigating how drones can be used to inspect these towers and feed HD video to our technicians, who can view the video in real-time.”