The terms used to define dense networks vary. Some call them ultra-dense networks, others call them hyper-dense networks, even hybrid dense networks. But regardless of what they are called, they promise to offer ubiquitous wireless coverage, wherever you are.
While there is a lot of chatter about dense networks and they are well covered at Connect (x), the bottom line is that they are still in the petri dish stage. There are some test beds and area such as sports stadiums that come under the dense coverage umbrella, but they have yet to scale to areas much larger than such venues, with next-generation technology. In fact, according to Greg Najjar, Director, Business Development, Advanced RF Technologies, “There are innovations, and apps, yet to be developed that are not even on the radar screen yet.” These will be what puts the pedal to the metal in the development and deployment of dense networks.
While the technologies for densification are rapidly reaching the viability stage, technologies are not the real challenge, according to the panel discussion. The real challenge is esthetics. That makes so much sense. While we rush to make it possible, technologically, putting that technology into hardware and deploying it poses a significant challenge. This because hardware is ugly and we just don’t want to see it. And, the hardware cannot be just dropped anywhere. There are many issues with who owns what and if they are willing to be part of this solution.
But that is not all. Even if we overcome the visibility factor, and have the technology, applying it transparently and reliably is also challenging. By that, I mean finding ways to scale network density.
The panel discussed that while it is pretty easy to cover an area, even a large one, with dense coverage. The dynamics of the space are often fluid. For example, take a sports venue. Typically, such a venue sees high traffic only periodically and then it is swamped. And that traffic may be dynamic within the venue as well. It may not be a particularly critical problem with a stadium, but scale that to the enterprise, city centers, or other large development s and it becomes problematic.
The panel addressed that by talking about new technologies such as AI, virtualization and self-optimizing networks. That is likely to resolve many of the issues, but realize that these technologies are in various stages of evolution and not necessarily ready for prime time, today.
And, of course, there is the RoI, which has yet to be proven. The pressure is always on cost containment, but in many cases, the cheapest solution may work under some conditions, and not under others in the same environment.
And finally, there is the issue of integrating all of the technologies currently in existence with new ones on the horizon. The last thing that the industry wants to do, with densification, is reinvent the wheel.
But it ended on an optimistic note. Once all the issues are resolved and densification begins, in earnest, the benefit will be tremendous. You will be able to find a parking space without driving around. You can find out how long your favorited restaurant wait is, even reserving a special table. People management will become possible, such as directing individuals to less crowded exit and entry points at various venues and showing crowd dynamics. And, not to mention autonomous vehicles and smart “x.”
Densification promises a lot. But it will take some time to deploy it, ubiquitously. And don’t forget, it will stratify across not only places but people and things as well. The vision is to up the level of the transparent user experience, across everything.
We talk a lot about paradigm shifts in the communications infrastructure industry. Last week, the Wireless Infrastructure Association effected one of its own in the Connectivity Expo, Connect (x), held in Charlotte, North Carolina. Combining its HetNet conference with its annual conference, the association essentially realized the new reality of comm-infra. The industry is converging, and so must the conferences that educate the industry.
I can’t remember exactly how many sessions WIA had last year, but this year felt like the association went from zero to 60 in 3 seconds with 11 keynotes, 44 breakout sessions, plus the Supplier Diversity Summit.
And it wasn’t just the expansion in the number of sessions but the increase in the breadth of topics that was impressive. Along with macro cells, the topics spanned intelligent edge networks, private LTE networks, connected property, vehicle-to-infrastructure and the enterprise. This was not your father’s tower show.
It was obvious from the very beginning when Satyen Yadan, GM IoT and Edge Services, Amazon Web Services, walked out on the spacious stage, things had changed. But FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly’s interview with Kathleen Abernathy, Wilkinson Barker Knauer, which came next, showed that the conference is still deeply rooted in the advocacy of the communications industry. The next day featured a keynote by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
As WIA expanded the size of its tent, it also invited more people inside. The association’s Partnership Program certainly added attendees from outside WIA’s normal sphere of influence, including the North Carolina Public Safety Broadband Summit, the CBRS Alliance, IoT Charlotte, Government Wireless Technology & Communications Association, Multefire Alliance, the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council, Smart Cities Council. The list went on.
Were the WIA staff happy will all of their programming and partnership choices? I am guessing there will be an in-depth discussion analyzing the sessions, speakers and partners. Diversifying a conference is no different from any business. It’s risky. Once, I asked a tower developer why she hadn’t diversified into small cells. Her answer was short and to the point. “We tried diversifying once and didn’t make any money. We are sticking with what we know.” And there is a lot of opportunity in “sticking” with towers.
However, bringing this discussion back to where I started. With the coming of the paradigm shift that is 5G, there is a greater awareness of the variety of next generation communications opportunities that require towers, small cells, fiber and edge computing. The ecosystem has not shifted away from towers. It has expanded, including towers, which will host CRAN aggregation as well as edge computing facilities, not to mention IoT and FirstNet antennas.
There are three reasons, maybe four, to go to a conference. Learning about opportunities to make money is at the top, following closely by identifying competitive threats and networking. A few go to make deals, too. This conference checked all of those boxes.
I go to conferences looking for news and to cover the comments of the newsmakers. Covering Charlie Ergen’s interview with former FCC Commissioner Rob McDowell was a highlight. Appearances by the C-level tower heads and FCC Commissioner O’Rielly and Chairman Pai were also newsworthy. My conversations in and around the show floor with B+T Group, Black & Veatch, BHC Rhodes, nespa, Cobham Wireless, and others were all informative.
Kudos to the WIA staff for all their hard work in reinventing their annual conference and making it a success.
The Connectivity Expo, Connect (x), conducted in Charlotte, North Carolina from May 21 to May 24 by the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WiA), showed how much the membership association’s remit has expanded since it grew from PCIA’s Site Owners and Managers Alliance, a membership section of tower owners and managers. Once focused, seemingly, almost entirely on telecommunications towers, the annual convention has increasingly added coverage of wireless network management, technology and content through the years.
Using partnerships with other organizations, this year’s convention added substantial coverage of the nationwide public safety broadband network of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet). Coverage of public safety wireless communications to that extent is something WIA previously left to others.
Tower companies received plenty of representation at the convention, with executives of five tower companies appearing during the “View from the Top” roundtable that has highlighted WIA conventions for 12 years running. And WIA’s board of directors has only tower company executives, plus the association’s president, with seats at the table.
Keynote speakers came from the ranks of wireless carriers, would-be wireless carriers, internet strategists, asset managers, manufacturers, data center operators, NASCAR, Amazon, FirstNet and the FCC. In fact, not one, but two FCC commissioners, including the chairman, spoke at the convention’s general sessions.
For years, a question asked at WIA conventions was, “What will Charlie do?” referring to Charlie Ergen, Dish Network’s founder and chairman. Since 2006, Dish Network has acquired rights to radio-frequency spectrum without putting it to use for terrestrial commercial wireless communications. As a deadline to use it or lose it approaches, the company has revealed plans to build a wireless network to serve the internet of things (IoT). Ergen spoke at the convention, saying that the company’s intentions already have been revealed through agreements with partners, and he summarized the Dish Network plan for using its spectrum.
Ergen said Dish Network’s access to only a limited amount of upllnk spectrum meant that its wireless network would not offer broadband service comparable to other wireless carriers and their plans to offer 5G wireless communications. Instead, the Dish Network would serve a universe of IoT applications. That’s what Charlie said he would do.
Dish Network probably would spend as much as $10 billion on its wireless network, Ergen said. His estimate later met skepticism at a panel session with representatives of privately owned tower companies where none of the participants responded affirmatively when asked whether they believed Dish Network would spend that much.
Tower companies heard good news expressed in a session of investment bankers, business brokers and stock analysts where a panelist said he expected Sprint and T-Mobile US to keep spending like crazy — $10 billion to $11 billion combined — to bolster their networks while their proposed merger goes through regulatory hoops for as much as a year to 18 months. And if and when the merger happens, he said that during the next three years, Sprint and T-Mobile will raise their spending with tower companies. He said the carriers would not turn off anything until they put all of the Sprint and Clearwire frequencies on T-Mobile sites and all of the T-Mobile frequencies on Sprint sites that they are going to keep. Watch the pages of AGL Magazinefor who said what about the outlook for towers and other wireless infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the convention’s coverage of all things related to the FirstNet network highlighted concerns about helping first responders with their wireless communications to save lives, prevent injury, treat the injured and protect property.
A corner of the convention dealt with ending fatalities caused by vehicular collisions with pedestrians and bicyclists. Computer vision systems at intersections allow observing, tracking and analyzing the behavior of people, cars, bicycles and dogs including not just collisions, but also near-collisions that otherwise go unreported. Knowing what actually goes on with all of these moving parts allows cities to take actions that save lives.
In all, Connect X offered a remarkable range of speakers and information that extended well beyond the world of towers, small cells and distributed antenna systems that underpins WIA and its convention. Deep in its history and under previous names, WIA had little to do with wireless infrastructure. Each year brings a new mixture of markets, technology and regulation. Towers may not be central to WIA sometime in the future, but for now, they continue to have influence, as evidenced by a portion of the convention focus and by the membership of the association’s board of directors.
At the Connectivity Expo, Connect (x) conducted by the Wireless Industry Association, executives of Cheytec and Squan spoke of the added value that their partnership provides building owners and enterprises seeking to invest in in-building wireless communications systems.
Cheytec has an extensive real estate portfolio and an ability to procure and license wireless carrier-certified RF signal source and base station equipment required to power in-building systems. Squan makes use of its network engineering and fiber construction know-how to solve complex and evolving telecommunications problems found in macro networks, small cells, distributed antenna systems, 5G wireless technology, the Internet of Things and smart cities for wireless, wireline and enterprise customers.
Ed Myers, regional vice president of sales and marketing at Cheytec, spoke about the future the company sees for in-building wireless systems. He said the company has seen a call for its services in all types of venues, from a single 30,000-square-foot office floor in Manhattan to large hotels with mixed-use retail space to new construction hospitals and apartment complexes to entertainment and theater venues.
“We remain focused on serving the enterprise customer,” Myers said. “We do this through multiple channels, but remain true to our value proposition of leveraging our unique OEM equipment distribution capabilities with Nokia and Ericsson and tight carrier programs to provide approved signal sources and wireless operator licensing to all of the projects we work on.”
Some say that building owners are receptive to paying for in-building wireless systems to attract and retain tenants, and some say the opposite: that the owners are not receptive because they view ownership turnover and tenant turnover as too short to warrant the expense. Myers explained Cheytec’s view.
“Building owners are coming around to the reality that they don’t have much of a choice when it comes to funding an in-building wireless system for increased coverage and capacity,” Myers said. “Not only is ubiquitous, high-quality wireless coverage a customer and tenant expectation — or in the case of public safety a legal requirement — but given the scope, scale and capital requirements of providing in-building coverage, wireless operators cannot do it alone. In the case of Cheytec, we work with the building owner to understand that there is both an acceptable return on investment analysis and an increase in overall building revenue and valuation associated with an in-building system deployment. We then engage our channels to design, build, and commission an indoor solution. Our programs for signal source and wireless operator participation allow owner-funded projects to retain more control over the timelines of the build and ensure carrier signal and service within a property.
The Cheytec program that Squan is joining is called Accelerate. In the program, Cheytec licenses small cell radio and signal source equipment to end-users for use in distributed antenna systems and other in-building cellular solutions. Myers said that during the past year, Cheytec has carefully selected the partners that are now part of its channel.
“We have several distributed antenna system vendors, national and regional systems integrators, and even a few smaller boutique shops that specialize in one or two verticals,” Myers said. “We will add a few more companies to the program this year. Bringing on a new partner is a bilateral commitment. The Accelerateprogram is bringing something to market that previously has not been available — owner-funded baseband units and carrier signal — in one package. There is extensive technical training, sales, operations and logistics, marketing and even legal support that goes along with program participation. As such, we are fairly selective about expanding the program too fast.
Keith Pennachio, executive vice president of Squan, said that the end users of in-building systems are the tenants, visitors, owners and maintenance workers, and the network operators provide the infrastructure. He said Crown Castle, American Tower and some emerging players are a surrogate for the network operator as it specifically relates to the fiber, conduit and ancillary support infrastructure
“Traditionally, network operators like AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon would fund the infrastructure design and construction,” Pennachio said. “Historically, the model would vary between neutral host (where others could join the infrastructure as a tenant) or dedicated network (where the design was exclusive to one network operator). The former would often seek capital contribution from the other carriers to offset costs of the design and construction, where the latter was often a strategic play to support a specific client under specific conditions. An example of specific conditions may be a scenario where a network operator sells 500 devices to company and commits to improving services in the form of a distributed antenna system.”
Pennachio said that in 2018, fewer carrier operators are willing to wholly support the design and construction of distributed antenna systems unless the economics make sense. He said this typically means that large venues like stadiums, airports, shopping malls and other large-scale, publicly accessible environments receive the attention in the form of budgetary dollars from the carriers. The network operators in these cases may look to companies such as Crown Castle or American Tower to build, own and operate the systems, although that may not always be ideal.
“With those design and construction dollars directed to these larger venues, it leaves a huge area of unsupported facilities, including office buildings; condominium, apartment and high-rise buildings; mixed use developments; and other environments whose occupants are becoming more and more demanding when it comes to wireless telecommunications as an amenity,” Pennachio said. “In turn, this has given rise to a mix of parties who are tired of waiting for the carriers to fund these types of projects.”
The Squan executive explained the nature of end-to-end wireless coverage solutions for enterprise clients. He said end-to-end wireless coverage starts from the fiber demarcation point in an enterprise facility, which feeds the signal source and head-end, which feeds strategically placed wireless componentry. This blankets a facility with wireless network coverage that is limited only to the quality of the design and the execution of the installation. Pennachio said that, at the end of the day, wireless coverage is wireless coverage. He said it is really more a matter of funding, design, installation and long-term operation of a system, which has become more of a fourth utility, along with water, electricity and natural gas as the other three.
“The user is defined as anyone who visits, lives, works, owns and maintains a building or facility,” Pennachio said. “If you consider that wireless coverage is an amenity akin to climate control, let’s say HVAC, the perception is more clearly aligned with a hierarchy of needs that is hyper-sensitive to the user experience. The moment some individual walks onto the premises of a facility, there is a minimum basic expectation that they will be able to use their mobile device with unimpeded access to their network provider.”
Pennachio gave what he said is an example of a defining scenario: “A new class A building is soliciting tenants in a vibrant part of town,” he said. “The lead partner in one of the biggest law firms in town views the top floor with her Realtor and realizes immediately that there is no reliable mobile coverage in the building. The owner of the building is now in jeopardy of losing that high-profile tenant to the nearly identical new building across the street, which will be completed in 30 days, and which has installed their own DAS that hosts all major carriers.”
Along with its other services, Cheytec also provides real estate and lease management services for wireless operators. Squan focuses on the evolution of communications networks for wireless and wireline communications and the componentry involved. Its services include backhaul, small cells, C-RAN, fiber, right of way, and the design, construction and technical installation services that support them.
This year’s Connectivity Expo, Connect (x), broadened the traditional infrastructure with a wider reach. One of those areas was a number of discussions around Edge networks. Below are some of what was presented in these cutting-edge sessions.
LTE on The Edge
One of the more interesting issues with upcoming 5G is the role 4G, specifically LTE, will play in it. Of late, there has been an uptick in the noise of this and there were some very interesting discussions about it here at Connect (x).
Many say that 4G will be the initial enabler of 5G, with its expanded capability to handle the demands of next-generation networks. It appears, at least from the data presented here, that this definitely has legs. While it is some fog as to all the possibilities of how this will shake out, there is one area where interest is keen – the CBRS band.
One of the promising enablers of licensed LTE, which is attractive to a lot of players, from carriers to web engines such as Amazon and Google, is the CBRS band. There is a lot of excitement here. For one, the barriers to entry are, relatively, low. Another enabling factor is the push for spectrum sharing.
This is extremely important since the CBRS band is being eyed by many factions for many use cases. And, there is broad support, from a technological perspective, from vendors to support the interested stakeholders.
In fact, one of the speakers in the session I attended around this, believes that CBRS deployments, at least in the early stages, will occur by the end of this year. To quote Mike Hart, CTO, Vivint Internet “CBRS is inevitable, now. It is not if, but when, and the when is down to months. This isn’t the end of CBRS, it is only the beginning.”
There also seems to be agreement about that from the FCC. In fact, Commissioner Michael O’Reilly, in his keynote earlier today was confident that progress in the CBRS band, as far as regulations go, will go quickly. As well, there is confidence that other spectrum regulatory agencies, around the world, are on board with making the 3.5 GHz band a common global platform.
It is, actually, quite amazing how fast progress in the band has occurred. This band has the potential to become a model scenario for deployments of next-generation technologies and platforms, while working with incumbents, as well as, employing edge-of-the-envelope spectrum-sharing metrics.
In closing, Hart noted that, “the CBRS band offers a great opportunity for disrupting the traditional models. Over time, we are very bullish about the neutral-host model as well, for a host of platforms, such as in-building.”
There is lot of investment beginning to go into CBRS. It will, definitely, be one of the more exciting spaces to watch.
Collocation on The Edge
Edge computing is definitely a hot topic here at Connect X. One message that came from the sessions is that The Edge is presently a confusing space. Some say it is here, others say not yet. Connect (x) sessions had extensive discussions on connectivity on The Edge and brought some interesting opinions and perspectives on what is going on at The Edge.
The most interesting session was the discussion on the next wave in digital collocation, and it talked about the issues around the convergence at The Edge of the network. Panelists included, Zachary Smith CEO, Packet, Cole Crawford, CEO, Vapor.IO, Josh Wolff Senior Vice President Lumos Networks and Josh Snowhorn, founder and chief strategy officer, EdgeMicro.
It was an interesting discussion because the panelists came from four very distinct and different perspectives, which made sense considering the diversity of the group. They covered just about all the angles. It was a group of very knowledgeable individuals with a pulse on the industry.
One of the more revealing statements came from Crawford when the moderator presented the question about when The Edge will arrive. According to Snowhorn, we are already too late. He wasn’t the only one. There was agreement among the panelists, in general, that The Edge cannot come too soon.
The reasoning for that is because the amount of data being consumed is already nearing capacity in the more congested locations. Without deploying Edge technology, bottlenecks are just waiting to happen. The biggest problem is latency. Typically, networks run around 10 to 20 milliseconds, which is just about the same time the various pathways around the human sensory information highway takes. That metric must be matched by networks otherwise our sensory capabilities are waiting for more input.
That is an interesting angle, yet very on target. Future networks must become transparent and lag times are a primary metric in this. This is of tantamount concern and a primary driver for deploying Edge data center networks as soon as possible.
Another interesting angle is the definition of exactly what constitutes The Edge. This is not a redundant question. The Edge is defined by applications such as autonomous vehicles, drone applications, and medical apps, which are much more sensitive to speed than apps such as video games, enterprise data movement and, in many cases the Internet of Anything/Everything (IoX).
The Edge is really the place where collocated infrastructures exist. The driving metric for these is performance and cost. Therefore, The Edge can really be towers, DAS deployments, small cells and other nodes on the networks, defined by application and data load requirements.
As well, The Edge must be a neutral host to be effective. It doesn’t matter if it manages carrier data, if it is a tower, or a hyperscale company installation. As Crawford puts it, “it is simply a meeting room at The Edge and QoS is the driving metric.
Overall, the message about The Edge, in general, is that we are still in the petri dish stage and we need to grow some results quickly so the industry can begin to get some clarity and begin to deploy it.
Executive Editor/Applied Wireless Technology
His 20-plus years of editorial experience includes being the Editorial Director of Wireless Design and Development and Fiber Optic Technology, the Editor of RF Design, the Technical Editor of Communications Magazine, Cellular Business, Global Communications and a Contributing Technical Editor to Mobile Radio Technology, Satellite Communications, as well as computer-related periodicals such as Windows NT. His technical writing practice client list includes RF Industries, GLOBALFOUNDRIES, Agilent Technologies, Advanced Linear Devices, Ceitec, SA, and others. Before becoming exclusive to publishing, he was a computer consultant and regularly taught courses and seminars in applications software, hardware technology, operating systems, and electronics. Ernest’s client list has included Lucent Technologies, Jones Intercable, Qwest, City and County of Denver, TCI, Sandia National Labs, Goldman Sachs, and other businesses. His credentials include a BS, Electronic Engineering Technology; A.A.S, Electronic Digital Technology. He has held a Colorado Post-Secondary/Adult teaching credential, member of IBM’s Software Developers Assistance Program and Independent Vendor League, a Microsoft Solutions Provider Partner, and a life member of the IEEE. He has been certified as an IBM Certified OS2 consultant and trainer; WordPerfect Corporation Developer/Consultant and Lotus Development Corporation Developer/Consultant. He was also a first-class FCC technician in the early days of radio. Ernest Worthman may be contacted at: [email protected]