Virtualization and open source software are making wireless networks more like IT networks, and the coders at FreedomFi want to give enterprises a way to take advantage of this. CEO and Founder Boris Renski, who also started Mirantis, is leading a team that's developing core network software for private LTE and 5G networks. They're using Facebook's Magma platform, which Renski hopes will be the Linux of the network core. It provides unified core functions for LTE, 5G standalone (SA) and Wi-Fi, built as a set of cloud-native microservices.
This is not a plug and play solution for companies that want to use private LTE instead of Wi-Fi. The FreedomFi solution is for sophisticated customers who have already decided they want to create an open source cellular network. These are companies that are willing and able to do some legwork up front in order to have a private network that will be more economical and customizable down the road. FreedomFi jumpstarts the process for them by supplying a "hardened" version of the Magma Project code in the form of a $300 gateway which can control about five radios. The gateway connects to the small cells, and also to any standard switch that has Internet access. Once connected to the Internet, the network can be controlled by FreedomFi's cloud-based orchestrator.
So far FreedomFi has 50 live sites deployed across seven customers. These customers include two utilities, a manufacturing company, a wireless Internet service provider, a cable company, and two of the nation's top ten satellite operators. Renski is most excited about the opportunity with satellite companies, who came to private LTE because they were already providing backhaul for regional mobile network operators (MNOs).
"These guys are looking to monetize their assets more efficiently rather than being dumb pipes to an MNO," he said. "They launch their own LTE-based access network. I would call them small-scale mobile broadband initiatives."
FreedomFi customers can obtain spectrum by acquiring CBRS licenses or using unlicensed CBRS spectrum. Renski said FreedomFi can secure spectrum access for customers who need help via relationships with CBRS spectrum management providers Federated Wireless and Google.
The company says its gateways can work with almost any CBRS small cell, many of which can be bought online. FreedomFi is testing its software with new small cells as they hit the market. Renski said integration on the data plane is usually not too hard, but when customers want to manage the configurations of the small cells it becomes more challenging. For this the core network software needs drivers that are specific to the type of small cell, and FreedomFi has developed these for a number of mainstream small cells.
Eventually, Renski foresees large customers deploying FreedomFi core networks with a variety of different small cells in one network, using radios from various vendors for different use cases.
"I think that open source projects like Magma will become over time this vendor-agnostic small cell operating system," Renski said. "Today, if you look at how the small cell vendors operate, they embed their own proprietary core or they have no core at all."
DIY core networks are not for everyone (yet)
FreedomFi has just 15 employees, and so far has not sent any of them to a physical customer site. "We ship the gateway to the customer and the customer will do all of the set-up themselves," Renski said. He said the FreedomFi team will set up an exact replica of a customer network in its lab in order to help the customer troubleshoot.
Right now the idea of an open source, locally hosted cellular network may seem daunting to many companies, but Renski is confident that this will change with time. He compares today's cellular networks to the Internet of 25 years ago, when launching a dot.com company involved spending thousands of dollars to buy a server, rack space, a database, and an operating system license.
"With LTE and 5G it's kind of the same," he said. "You need to go get spectrum ... you need to go to one of the network equipment providers to get a radio from them, you need to buy expensive network core software from somewhere, and integrate all of that. It takes a long time." FreedomFi wants to make launching an on-premise wireless network as easy and inexpensive as launching a website.
— Martha DeGrasse, special to Light Reading. Follow her @mardegrasse