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Meta helps change the game for indoor cellular

Meta worked with AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile to use small cells and the 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum band to build a neutral host indoor wireless network for its office employees.

Mike Dano

April 25, 2023

4 Min Read
Meta helps change the game for indoor cellular

Three years ago, social networking giant Meta began looking for a way to ensure that its employees' cellphones kept ringing even while they were deep inside the company's corporate offices, potentially out of the reach of outdoor wireless networks.

The solution involved a newly released spectrum band, a partnership among heated rivals and a network that's "significantly" cheaper than Meta's previous way of providing indoor coverage.

"We've had a good experience with that so far. There's been significant cost savings as well," said Meta's Heather Marquez, the company's executive manager of global technical operations, during a recent roundtable hosted by Deloitte, which acted as an integration partner.

Figure 1: (Source: Tim Bennett on Unsplash) (Source: Tim Bennett on Unsplash)

Meta's new neutral host in-building wireless network – built before the company's financial troubles and layoffs – leverages small cells and the unlicensed 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum band. And, via Multiple Operator Core Network (MOCN) technology, it runs with the blessings of AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile. Meaning, Meta owns and operates the network, but customers from the nation's three big 5G providers can seamlessly roam on and off the network.

"We were very excited about it," said AT&T's Suja John, head of global roaming. She added that AT&T plans to take the technologies developed in Meta's network deployment and offer them to other enterprise customers.

"We do find that this is another tool in our toolbox that we can potentially use," John said.

Turning to CBRS

Meta's offices in the US alone collectively span roughly 20 million square feet. The company currently uses distributed antenna systems (DAS) to cover about 30% of that area. However, Meta wanted to find a standard solution that the company could roll out across all its buildings, while at the same time positioning itself to engage in some private wireless networking applications.

DAS wouldn't work, according to Marquez, because the systems are primarily intended for massive venues like sports stadiums and convention centers and can be too expensive and complex for smaller office spaces.

Meta decided to turn to the CBRS spectrum band, which the FCC recently released for licensed and unlicensed uses. Using small cells with CBRS, Meta found it could cover its offices 75% more quickly than with DAS and at a much lower cost.

Meta officials did not name the company's equipment vendors during the roundtable event, nor did they provide specific figures around costs or savings.

Help from mobile operators

Meta realized that it couldn't simply build its own CBRS network. It needed to coordinate its efforts with the nation's big wireless operators to ensure that their services could travel over Meta's CBRS network to employees' phones.

Verizon's Jake Kornblatt, managing director for the operator's global systems integrators and hyperscalers, said the company tested the Meta network extensively to make sure "that when a Verizon customer stepped into a Meta building, they were getting the best possible experience."

Similarly, T-Mobile's Chris Melus, VP of product development, said that his company had to test the Meta network to make sure it could handle emergency services like 911.

"We wanted to make sure our customers had the best service," Melus said. "We love when our partners bring us innovative ideas."

Part of the solution involved using MOCN technology as a way to bridge the gap between private and public wireless networks. Several other CBRS deployments are also testing MOCN connections.

Now, according to Meta's Marquez, "we have consistent coverage in all of our buildings."

Stepping back and moving forward

It's no surprise that Meta led the charge on the in-building CBRS opportunity. The company's "Connectivity" initiative helped develop several innovative connection technologies – from solar-powered drones and fiber-laying robots to low-Earth orbit satellites – in order to extend the company's social network to more users. Moreover, Meta helped found the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) in 2016, which continues to develop open and disaggregated standards for various telecom technologies.

But Meta has faced headwinds recently. The company is struggling with sagging interest in its social networking advertising products, and it recently shuttered its Connectivity initiative amid thousands of layoffs.

Still, there's clear interest in in-building CBRS efforts like Meta's. Crown Castle, Dish Network and MGM Resorts International have all highlighted deployments of indoor wireless networks among big building owners. Other such deployments have been touted by the OnGo Alliance, which promotes applications in the CBRS band.

Roughly 80% of wireless traffic is generated indoors, according to most industry estimates. And building owners increasingly are offering wireless technologies as a selling point for office real estate.

Further, private wireless networks promise to add utility to in-building wireless networks with applications ranging from building maintenance and monitoring to security.

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

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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