After seeing support from some of the big, public wireless network operators in the US, companies involved in private wireless networking are raising their hopes around neutral host networks.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

March 15, 2024

5 Min Read
Exterior view of a modern multi-story apartment building
(Source: Alexey Sorokin/Alamy Stock Photo)

The private wireless networking industry has developed more slowly than some had hoped. But that might be changing, and it could be thanks to neutral host deployments helping to drive things forward.

"This is a big focus for us," Federated Wireless CEO Iyad Tarazi told Light Reading. Federated Wireless made its name in the industry by supporting spectrum management systems in the 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum band but has since expanded into areas including private wireless.

Others agree that the neutral host opportunity is beginning to drive private wireless momentum. Glenn Laxdal, CEO of network equipment vendor Airspan, said he sees neutral hosts as the first big driver for private wireless.

The neutral host trend gained steam throughout 2023, particularly after AT&T and T-Mobile signaled their intention to support connections into private wireless networks. Now, executives in the space believe that demand for their offerings is growing – and that Verizon may soon join its rivals in supporting the new neutral host model. Verizon officials didn't respond to questions from Light Reading.

"We're building an open ecosystem around it," Tarazi said about the neutral host model. Federated Wireless is fleshing out its product portfolio to provide a range of services – including edge computing capabilities for AI functions – to enterprises exploring private wireless, he added.

Better coverage, lower costs

Neutral host networks in the US allow a venue owner to purchase and install its own private 3.5GHz CBRS wireless network and then connect it to a big, public wireless network operator through the Multi Operator Core Network (MOCN) standard. By doing so, the venue can offer indoor cellular coverage – an important stipulation for venues with lots of foot traffic like hotels and hospitals. So far AT&T and T-Mobile have appeared willing to link their operations into these third-party networks.

The model represents a significant update to the old way of providing indoor networks. Under the distributed antenna system (DAS) model, large venues like sports stadiums would buy expensive and difficult to install equipment that could work in the spectrum bands supported by all the big public wireless network operators in the US, from AT&T to Verizon.

But after the CBRS band became available in 2019 (it is now supported by most newer smartphones), building and venue owners only needed to support one spectrum band instead of several. That change has lowered the cost of in-building wireless equipment.

Indeed, both CommScope and Corning have recently announced new in-building radios, with Corning boasting that its new Everon offering reduces installation times by up to 75% and costs by up to 50%.

The result, according to Tarazi, is an indoor cellular network that's beginning to look like Wi-Fi in terms of cost and simplicity.

A multitude of suppliers

Federated Wireless and Airspan are just two of many players in the market for neutral host private wireless networks.

Many observers believe Boldyn Networks could emerge as a major player. The company recently completed its acquisition of private network specialist Edzcom from Spanish tower company Cellnex Telecom. However, officials from Boldyn declined to discuss deployment of neutral host networks on CBRS spectrum with Light Reading.

Other players include Celona, Kajeet, InfiniG, Druid Software and Halo Networks. Halo this week trumpeted its newest neutral host deployment in Washington DC's Pentagon City. The company is fronted by Jim Hyde, the former CEO of Extenet Networks, another company involved in in-building networks.

Even some of the biggest players in the telecom industry are eying the sector. For example, Ericsson announced in February that carmaker Toyota deployed a CBRS private wireless network with its Radio Dot System in a major production complex in Columbus, Indiana. Ericsson said it "worked closely with three major US carriers" on the network, in part to extend public cellular coverage into Toyota's facilities.

Facebook owner Meta helped pioneer the neutral host concept by using small cells and the 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum band to build a neutral host indoor wireless network for its office employees. As Light Reading previously reported, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile all support Meta's network.

One of many iterations

According to Tarazi, multiple scenarios are playing out in the neutral host market for private wireless networks. Some of Federated Wireless' existing private wireless networking customers are looking at the technology as a way to add indoor public cellular coverage atop the private wireless networking operations they're already managing, he said.

Others want to use the technology to bridge the digital divide. For example, a school district might consider deploying wireless technologies to keep students connected, while also using a neutral host network to bring public cellular coverage into school buildings.

Another use case is emerging in the market for real estate. Tarazi said some office building owners are keen to ensure public cellular coverage inside their locations as a way to entice prospective tenants. "We're going to see how that works in terms of augmentation for real estate coverage," he said.

But the private wireless networking opportunity extends well beyond those deployment scenarios. According to Omdia analyst Pablo Tomasi, a wide range of industrial and enterprise players are stamping out positions in the market. He pointed to the recent MWC Barcelona trade show, where HPE, Tech Mahindra, Schneider Electric and NTT Data all announced private wireless advancements, using buzzwords like AI and edge computing.

"The market is maturing, and those keen to win private networks are showing their commitment to this market," Tomasi wrote. (Omdia and Light Reading are owned by the same parent company, Informa.) "As the market matures and new strategies emerge, new opportunities take shape," he added.

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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