Ford is planning to build a private LTE/5G network in the 3.5GHz CBRS band in a parking structure on its Dearborn, Michigan, campus to test connected vehicle services. Ford said it will use equipment from Dell, Juniper and Ericsson for the effort, including eight of Ericsson's indoor Dot Radio-branded small cells.
Ford provided an outline of its plans in a filing with the FCC to request permission to build a test network in the spectrum band.
However, exactly what Ford plans to do with the network remains unclear. The company acknowledged that "the automotive industry is on the move, as connected car technology brings greater value to manufacturers and drivers. In the connected car, telematics monitor safety and efficiency, while navigation, infotainment and self-driving transform the driving experience." The company also said that it wanted to gain experience "with installation and operation of a private cellular network for connected vehicle services." But it did not say exactly what it would do with the network. The fact that the network is located within a parking structure could indicate Ford might test some kind of automated parking technology.
Ford representative did not immediately respond to questions on the topic.
Regardless, Ford's application underscores two big trends in the global wireless and automotive industries: connected cars and private wireless networks.
Connected cars are not new, of course. Indeed, most of Ford's newer automobiles feature connections to AT&T's LTE network in the US. Such connections can power a variety of services, from emergency roadside assistance to turn-by-turn driving directions to streaming audio and video entertainment services. Moreover, auto makers continue to eye high-powered wireless technologies to support autonomous driving services. Already Ford is a member of the 5G Automotive Association (5GAA) trade group that's looking at ways 5G network technology can support advanced driving services.
But Ford's plans to test operations in the CBRS band are perhaps even more interesting in the context of private wireless networks that use cellular technologies rather than WiFi. Such networks promise to provide companies like Ford dedicated wireless networks that potentially use licensed spectrum coupled with advanced transmission technologies like LTE and 5G -- designs originally intended for cell phones and other mobile devices but that could be repurposed for a wide variety of uses.
And Ford isn't the only company looking into the market for private wireless networks. For example, cable company Charter is planning to test a massive private LTE network in the 3.5GHz CBRS band near its offices in Denver, while Nokia tested a private LTE network in the 3.5GHz CBRS band at the Santa Clara Convention Center.
In terms of commercially launched private wireless networks, Nokia has already teamed with Finnish operator Ukkoverkot to build a private LTE network for the Port of HaminaKotka near Helsinki, and it worked with Brazilian power company Elektro to deploy a private LTE network to track the efficiency of the electrical grid in the city of Atibaia. Similarly, Ericsson recently announced it would supply private LTE equipment for United Nations peacekeeping missions around the globe.
Nokia's CTO Marcus Weldon recently said the potential size of the private wireless market globally could comprise as many as 14 million base stations -- twice as many as the 7 million total base stations deployed by the world's commercial wireless network operators. According to research firm Mobile Experts, the market for private LTE and 5G could grow at a 10% compound annual growth rate to a total of $3.4 billion by 2024.
In the US, the 3.5GHz CBRS band has been ground zero for private wireless testing. That's because the spectrum fits well with LTE technology and will soon be available on an unlicensed basis. The FCC will also auction a portion of the band for licensed uses next year.
The CBRS band isn't yet available for commercial operations, but that may soon change. After months of delay, the NTIA completed testing of the spectrum-sharing technology governing users in the band, and the CBRS Alliance recently predicted initial commercial deployments in 3.5GHz would start in the first two weeks of September.