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5G

Crown Castle hints at the future of indoor 5G

Crown Castle's primary business involves constructing and operating massive macro cell towers for mobile network operators around the country.

And that's why its new deal with a New York City real estate company is so noteworthy.

Crown Castle said it built a wireless network inside a New York City skyscraper at 345 Park Avenue. The 5G-capable, private wireless network – which was built on open RAN specifications – operates in the unlicensed 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum band, is owned and operated by Crown Castle, and is initially being used for "smart building" operations including tracking indoor air quality, tenant traffic and elevator wait times.

"This exciting new technology goes beyond what was possible even a few years ago," said Michael Rudin of the Rudin Management Company in a Crown Castle release. The Rudin Management Company owns the building at 345 Park Avenue. "The spectrum that this technology is based in is the wave of the future, and tenants and owners alike who rely on fast, reliable connectivity will need this in order to stay competitive," Rudin said.

Crown Castle's announcement with the Rudin Management Company – which owns dozens of massive commercial and residential buildings across New York City – is a signal by the tower company of a new and potentially lucrative business: private, indoor networks.

And while that might be tantalizing enough for companies keen to sell wireless networking services to building owners across the country and the world, Crown Castle also hinted at ambitions beyond that: "The network was designed to support multiple tenants," the company said in response to questions from Light Reading. (We asked whether the customers of AT&T, Verizon and other network operators would be able to roam onto Crown Castle's new private, indoor network.)

Outdoor simplicities, indoor complexities

Until recently, 4G and 5G networks were almost exclusively constructed by commercial network operators like Verizon and their partners. Whether those networks covered indoor spaces or outdoor spaces made little difference. And tower companies like Crown Castle happily constructed and operated the infrastructure necessary for those operators' radio equipment.

But a confluence of developments – including the availability of unlicensed spectrum like CBRS as well as cheaper radio hardware and compelling applications – have pushed a range of companies from utilities to delivery companies to real estate firms like Rudin Management Company to build their own private networks.

As a result, companies like Crown Castle are now hunting for business from venue operators, real estate developers and other building owners because "tenants consider connectivity a utility," according to the company.

Crown Castle confirmed to Light Reading that it had installed 15 CBRS radios in the 345 Park Avenue building covering the lobby and concourse. "The buildout of the rest of the building is in process," the company said.

Crown Castle did not answer questions about the cost of the project, nor which vendors supplied the equipment, but it did note that "this private network was built as an open RAN solution that will lead to lower cost and more flexibility." Open RAN, of course, is a conspicuous new trend in the global wireless industry that promises to separate the components of a wireless network into interchangeable, Lego-type bricks that network operators can use to lower costs, among other benefits.

Customers including wireless network operators

Crown Castle's network initially will be used by Rudin Management Company for a variety of applications. Primary among those will be improving energy efficiency. Indeed, one of the building's tenants, KPMG, said it plans to use the network for a new product called "Climate Accounting Infrastructure" that the company said, "helps organizations more accurately measure greenhouse gas emissions, track offsets and report on non-financial factors to investors, lenders and tenants."

Another application, according to Crown Castle, will involve "floor-by-floor occupancy data." But don't worry: "All occupancy data is anonymized," the company said.

In the company's release, Crown Castle's Paul Reddick hinted at perhaps the most interesting aspect of the 345 Park Avenue network: "CBRS is consistent with our company's focus on shared assets for the benefit of all. This is of great value to building owners, tenants and wireless network operators."

Crown Castle did not directly answer questions from Light Reading on whether operators like AT&T or Verizon would allow their customers to roam onto the network. It would be technically possible: Apple, Samsung and others have added support for the CBRS spectrum band into their phones, and operators like Verizon have been using the CBRS to bolster their 4G networks.

However, so far, there remains no clear method for Crown Castle to register its CBRS network at 345 Park Avenue as a roaming option for Verizon and other operators. According to a number of executives involved in the issue, the holdup has much more to do with the complexities around the business model than anything else. After all, how would a network operator like AT&T maintain roaming relationships with potentially hundreds or thousands of different building owners?

Some companies have designed workarounds to this problem. For example, Geoverse is offering building owners the ability to register their private networks as legitimate roaming options under the existing roaming agreements managed by its parent company ATN International, which also owns rural network operator Commnet Wireless.

Whether commercial mobile network operators will become one of the "multiple tenants" of Crown Castle's private wireless network remains to be seen. But the possibility remains a hot topic in the industry.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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