LTE/5G Private Networks – Devices Availability Key to Growth in Unlicensed Spectrum

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November 27th, 2019

The availability of shared and unlicensed spectrum bands coupled with the emergence of standalone cellular technologies such as MulteFire is setting the stage for enterprise and industrial companies to invest in private LTE and later 5G networks.

In the past, enterprises were often forced to use bands reserved for specific verticals and for which only proprietary equipment was available. The ability to use LTE, a mature, standards-based technology, will enable many enterprises to reduce deployment and operational costs and avoid vendor lock-in in both infrastructure and devices. However, some users with very specific IoT/IIoT requirements will continue using proprietary equipment.

In the US, limited commercial services based on LTE private networks were launched in the 3.5 MHz Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) band in September 2019 and will enable a wide range of companies to build their own wireless networks without the involvement of the Big 4 operators.

Outside the US, the LTE-based MulteFire standard with its “Listen-Before-Talk” feature will be a critical enabler allowing enterprises to deploy LTE private networks without the involvement of an MNO in unlicensed regional and global spectrum bands around the world. These include the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz global bands and the 800/900 MHz and 1.9 MHz regional bands. With its standalone feature, MulteFire will open up unlicensed spectrum to a host of new players, including wireless ISPs, general enterprises, specialist verticals and even MNOs themselves. All could deploy MulteFire-based LTE private networks.

“With its Wi-Fi-like plug-and-play implementation, MulteFire will for the first time overcome many of the deficiencies of alternative wireless and wired standards whilst its “Listen-Before-Talk” feature will enable devices to share spectrum with Wi-Fi and other wireless standards” said Gareth Owen, Associate Director, Counterpoint Research.

For many IoT and IIoT enterprise and industrial applications, however, success will depend on the availability of devices. Vendor support from chipset, module and end user devices will be crucial for the success of both CBRS and MulteFire. Vendors will need to offer a wide range of LTE-based devices in multiple form factors, for example, for indoor and outdoor usage, high-density and rural environments, public and private networks, etc. These will include a range of IoT and IIoT devices as well as smartphones.

A number of modules, modems, routers and consumer premises equipment are already available including numerous smartphones such as the Apple iPhone 11s, Samsung Galaxy 10 series smartphones and devices from LG, Motorola and OnePlus. However, LTE devices and equipment need to be modified to work in the 3.5 GHz CBRS band and must be certified to meet the CBRS-specific requirements.

At present, MulteFire lags behind CBRS in respect of available commercial devices. However, with the MulteFire 1.1 specification complete since the summer, devices are expected to become available next year with the Japanese market likely to be the first market. For instance, the MulteFire Alliance recently announced German company DEKRA as its first product certification company for the 1.9 GHz band in Japan last month, which will ensure co-existence with DECT and PHS systems operating in the same band.

However, chipsets for the 5 GHz band are not expected to become available until the end of 2019 with devices expected to be launched in 1H 2020. The first devices are likely to be dongles, IoT devices, gateways and ruggedized tablets followed in time by smartphones. Chipsets for the 900 MHz and 2.4 MHz bands are expected to become available later.

“Devices designed for 3.5 GHz outside the US will not be able to access the US CBRS band as they do not satisfy the FCC requirements for shared usage with incumbent users in the band” said Peter Richardson, Research Director at Counterpoint Research. “In time, however, we think it is likely that dual-tech CBRS/MulteFire devices will be introduced which will enable the same devices to be used across US, Europe and Asia thus accelerating adoption of both CBRS and MulteFire” he added.

The 3GPP is working on adapting the 5G NR standard to be used in unlicensed spectrum by adding LBT to the NR specification which will become part of the 3GPP’s Release 16 specification due to be published in 2020. Similarly, the CBRS Alliance will add support for 5G In its upcoming third release, expected to be published in 4Q 2019. 5G shared spectrum services are expected to begin in the US around mid-2020.

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Counterpoint Technology Market Research is a global research firm specializing in Technology products in the TMT industry. It services major technology firms and financial firms with a mix of monthly reports, customized projects and detailed analysis of the mobile and technology markets. Its key analysts are experts in the industry with an average tenure of 13 years in the high-tech industry.

Analyst Contacts:

Gareth Owen

Counterpoint Research