Apple’s iPhone 11 introduced support for Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) for the first time, which should help U.S. enterprise users solve real problems. What is it and what can it do?
What is Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS)?
A simplified explanation of CBRS is that it’s a selection of new frequencies recently made available in the U.S. by the Federal Communications Commission.
It’s sometimes also referred to as “private LTE,” because it enables users to create ad hoc wireless networks that are both ultra-private and more reliable than Wi-Fi. The frequencies used are between 3,550-3,700MHz in the 3.5GHz band.
Use of the spectrum is currently shared between:
- Federal users such as the U.S. Navy.
- Operators with licenses to provide priority access.
- Unlicensed deployments, such as those from cellular networks, venues or public events.
The standard is championed by the CBRS Alliance in the form of its OnGo plan.
What are the benefits of CBRS?
There are numerous benefits to the technology, but by far the biggest is that CBRS makes it possible to quickly deploy ad hoc wireless networks that can transmit through metal or walls and deliver better performance than Wi-Fi.
I spoke with Celona, who is developing enterprise-focused solutions based on the standard .
Technical Marketing chief Jeremy Rollinson explained how the technology could be used to connect all the infrastructure at a major private event hosting thousands of people.
Typically, you’d need to populate the area with Wi-Fi base stations and hundreds of meters of cable to connect those stations to routers in order to create build a wireless network capable of running all the tasks, including Point-of-Sale tasks, at the location, he explained.
CBRS enabled Celona to deploy a private and stable wireless network using a small suitcase and an aerial. The company has also been able to demonstrate that dozens of iPhone 11 devices can run high-bandwidth applications simultaneously in the same place over the network with no degradation in signal quality.
The significance of this might be lost on some people, but if you are an enterprise user seeking a way to deploy a robust and private network in any geographical location – a theme park owner attempting to switch on a public wireless service, for example, or an emergency service requiring private and secure connectivity in a danger zone – CBRS could be a new tool in your box.
CBRS may also come into its own as a last-mile technology to support geographically poorly served areas with connectivity. Federated Wireless has already announced plans to enable CBRS services for customers in rural and urban markets.
Celona’s service encrypts CBRS traffic from the edge, and supports wireless service level policies to support mission-critical tasks, while also keeping such tasks (and the staff devices engaged in running them) secure.
What are the limitations?
The big limitation to the technology is that it is currently U.S.-only, though other nations are currently putting similar slices of wireless spectrum up for auction. (We just don’t know whether Apple will support these spectra yet; Celona co-founder and CTO, Mehmet Yavuz seems confident it will.)
How does Apple support CBRS?
A SIM card is required in order to bring an iPhone 11 onto Celona’s CBRS network. The device maintains traditional cellular network access using a virtual SIM, while CBRS access is provided by the Celona SIM. The company hopes to be able to offer CBRS connectivity using a virtual SIM by the end of the year.
The use case for this set-up might be that on arriving at a conference or other event, you point your iPhone 11 camera at a QR code at the entrance and the CBRS network access will be automatically provisioned with use of a digital SIM on your device.
When you use this network, you’ll typically enjoy much better network bandwidth and connectivity – like being at WWDC with good Wi-Fi during an Apple keynote (which never really happens).
There are also industrial implications: This technology could be used to bring a factory floor full of automated manufacturing machines online with very little effort, and a high degree of security, for instance.
Part of the future?
CBRS is one of multiple networking standards that will help define the future. While so much focus is on 5G, that standard isn’t yet universally available, won’t be for some time, and most of us will employ a range of different standards to get ourselves and our enterprises online.
We’ll use a combination of Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi 6, LTE, 3G, 4G, 5G, fixed-line broadband, satellite, and a plethora of other wireless technologies.
We’ll need to do so in order to support the tens of billions of connected devices expected to come online over the next few years.
It’s within this emerging networking ecosystem that CBRS has a part to play – of course, it’s also possible the technology could be used to create a more stable alternative to private Wi-Fi at home.
How many times has your wireless performance been degraded because of all the many neighboring Wi-Fi networks attempting to use contiguous channels?
Why is Apple supporting it?
The big question really is why Apple quietly introduced support for CBRS.
The fact that it did so suggests the company may have more plans around the standard. Devices from Samsung and the Pixel 3 also offer support in the same bandwidth (LTE 48).
It may also be of interest to consider Wi-Fi6.
Apple’s decision to introduce support for Wi-Fi6 has accelerated deployment of the standard in public spaces such as stadiums, as perhaps 70% of devices used in those places are iPhones, some industry insiders report.
The decision to introduce CBRS support at the same time will also likely accelerate adoption, though the industry needs a little more time for service models to evolve.
It will also be interesting to see if Apple has any plans that may require use of the standard.
What next for CBRS?
Most players in the CBRS space are in early stage development of their solutions, with a range of different emerging business models. That said, it promises to be a good solution for stable connectivity for personal or business users and appears promising for specific industry verticals, such as manufacturing, mining, healthcare, educational deployments and beyond.
Will you explore its use in your enterprise?
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Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.
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