With Seattle deployment, Ballast hopes for private wireless maturation

Ballast Networks built a private wireless CBRS network in Seattle's Sound Hotel for $40,000. And now, the network supports commercial traffic from AT&T's customers via MOCN technology.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

July 17, 2023

4 Min Read
With Seattle deployment, Ballast hopes for private wireless maturation
Ballast said computers for its network in the Seattle hotel can easily fit inside a small closet. (Source: Ballast)

According to a founder of Ballast Networks, the private wireless networking space is finally getting ready to take a big step forward. That's in part because his small startup helped build a $40,000 private wireless network for a hotel that's now transmitting commercial traffic to AT&T's customers.

"What we're selling, this is as easy to deploy as Wi-Fi, but has the quality of DAS [distributed antenna system]," Paul Kooiker, co-founder of Ballast Networks, told Light Reading.

Hotels, sports stadiums, airports and other such venues typically must install DAS networks to bring cellular connections indoors. But those systems often are very expensive and require significant amounts of bulky equipment. Ballast's new network, on the other hand, runs in the unlicensed 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum band – which can be used by all of the big US carriers – and requires just a few computer servers.

Meaning, it's cheap enough and small enough that smaller hotels can buy and install it themselves – no extra funding needed.

"Our go to market is to make it easy and cost efficient so that the property owners fund these networks," Kooiker explained.

From DAS to private wireless

Kooiker said he knows all about the difficulties of DAS. He said he installed close to 200 such systems during his tenure as an AT&T executive. He said he left the company roughly five years ago in the early days of the private wireless CBRS industry, with the idea that he would capitalize on technologies that would make indoor networks more affordable.

However, like others in the space, he acknowledged that he "bought into the hype cycle early." Now, though, he suggested the sector is beginning to mature.

Kooiker's comments stem from what he said has been the successful installation of a private wireless network at the Sound Hotel Seattle Belltown, an upscale hotel with around 140 rooms in downtown Seattle. The network runs in the unlicensed 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum band and covers the hotel's first two floors – or roughly 10,000 square feet – with four transmission sites using Airspan radios and a core from Druid Software. Kooiker said the installation cost around $40,000, which Ballast paid for in order to use the network as a product showcase for other customers.

"Our objective is to go to the buildings where DAS would never make sense," Kooiker said. He explained that Ballast's plan is to sell its private wireless network setup to other venues that can't afford DAS installations due to their size. Such venues may want their own network in order to ensure visitors' phones remain connected. But venues like the Sound in Seattle may also want a private wireless network for applications such as environmental monitoring, employee communications or video surveillance. Indeed, the Sound Hotel tested those applications with Comcast and Ballast last year.

Enter MOCN

Kooiker said the arrival of Multiple Operator Core Network (MOCN) technology – and operator support for that technology – is a final piece of the private wireless puzzle. MOCN promises to bridge the gap between commercial, public wireless networks (like those from AT&T) and private wireless networks (like those in the Sound Hotel). Meaning, the network won't just be for the staff of the Sound Hotel; it can also be used by its guests.

"Now it's carrying commercial traffic," Kooiker said of Ballast's network at the Sound Hotel.

He explained that Ballast built and tested the network with the support of AT&T's networking technicians. Via MOCN, the companies ensured that Sound guests shifted onto the hotel's private wireless network when they were no longer in reach of AT&T's cell sites outside the hotel. (Kooiker said that cellular signals often can't reach deep into the Sound Hotel because of the dense materials used in the hotel's construction.)

Kooiker said the final obstacle to Ballast's deployment was 911. He said Ballast had to ensure that Sound guests could still have their AT&T calls routed to emergency responders even when they were connected to the hotel's network.

Now, he said, that 911 routing is working. Which means Ballast can sell its design to other venues. He said the company is currently working with T-Mobile to implement a similar MOCN and 911 routing process, and expects to do so with Verizon as well.

To be clear, Ballast isn't the only company hoping to use MOCN to develop the private wireless networking market. Indeed, social networking giant Meta recently used the technology in order to ensure its employees could still make calls deep within its offices.

Further, Kooiker cautioned that Ballast's approach probably won't replace DAS in all venues. For example, in high-traffic locations like sports stadiums, network operators will probably still want to deploy all of their various spectrum bands in a way that private wireless CBRS networks can't support.

But for smaller venues, like the Sound Hotel, Ballast believes there's a new option.

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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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