One of the biggest stories of 2020 wasn’t about the pandemic, politics or protests, says Marc Price, CTO of Matrixx Software.
It was about private networks or, more specifically, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s opening up of wireless spectrum that would enable private 5G networks to be deployed by almost any company that had a mind to do it.
Now, I’ll grant you, a story about regulatory changes to the Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS) probably sounds pretty forgettable in a year when even the invasion of giant murder hornets struggled to get attention. But this is really big news for businesses and consumers, and here’s why: Spectrum licenses are the #1 barrier to entry into the wireless market. AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile spend billions of dollars on spectrum licences more than half of their total budgets each year which is why they dominate the wireless market.
Disrupting the telcos
The FCC’s announcement essentially upends that model. Remember when Uber figured out they didn’t need to own taxis to provide a taxi service? Or Airbnb realised that they could compete with global hoteliers without owning a single hotel? That’s the kind of disruption that shared CBRS spectrum will have on the telco industry. I don’t know what the telco unicorns of tomorrow will look like, but I do know they won’t look anything like the big three US wireless providers we have today.
Until now, private networks have been a mixed success. Most of the early 4G uses cases for private networks have focused on applications such as factory floors. The efficiency and connectivity benefits were there, but the compelling revenue story was missing. That changes with 5G and its promise of millisecond latencies, gigabit speeds, ultra-precise locations and longer battery lives for devices.
These benefits, combined with the accessibility of 5G wireless through shared spectrum, open up the possibility for a much wider range of commercial applications. An airport, for example, might launch its own private 5G network to sell wireless connection services to passengers, airlines, in-airport stores and even TSA agents. Similarly, a property manager might re-sell private 5G network services to its building tenants.
Delivering 5G services without the carriers
The unprecedented availability of unlicensed spectrum doesn’t mean that tier one service providers are excluded from the private network party. In fact, they need to show up to the party early if they expect to have a place at the table. Most tier ones are already grooming themselves for this reality. But, for the first time in forever, the big telco providers won’t be the masters of ceremony any more. Companies will be able to deliver 5G services completely independent of the major carriers.
In some ways, we’re standing at the edge of a new Wild West of wireless. In other, more mundane ways, we’re trading in our all-aboard-the-major-carrier bus pass for a chance to rideshare, rent, lease or buy our own car.
Whatever the future holds, it’s sure to be a heckuva ride. Let’s just hope 2021 is a quiet enough year that we can appreciate the excitement that this new wireless revolution will bring.
The author is Marc Price, CTO of Matrixx Software.