Fresh off the FCC's May 13 order making 6MHz of spectrum in the 900MHz band available for broadband technologies and services, Anterix is positioning itself to become a private LTE enabler for utility companies. The company, which holds about 60% of the 900MHz spectrum licenses in the top 20 markets in the US, is hoping to do for private LTE networks what Cellular One did for cellular networks back in the 1990s.
Cellular One was a brand that was formed in the late 1980s that was shared by many different independent cellular companies across the country. The Cellular One brand not only helped the independent wireless networks market their services to consumers but it also helped those operators get deals on equipment and devices. Rob Schwartz, CEO of Anterix, likes to compare Anterix's business model to that of Cellular One because the company isn't interested in building its own network but instead wants to lease its spectrum to potential customers and help them build their own networks.
"We aren't building a network," he said. "We want to help customers understand it and help them with their implementation."
Educating industrial users
After five years of working with the FCC on the topic, the agency's new ruling makes it possible for 900MHz licensees like Anterix to apply their spectrum toward LTE networks.
However, Schwartz said there is still a lot more work ahead. For one, utilities and other industrial users need to be educated on what this FCC decision means for them. And they also need to learn how to use LTE in the 900MHz band to build a robust network. "We are talking to federal regulators, utilities and potential industrial users about how to build and fund these networks," Schwartz said.
Schwartz was elevated to CEO July 1. He succeeds Morgan O'Brien, who was elevated to the role of executive chairman of Anterix. Like O'Brien, Schwartz is a former Nextel executive, where he served as director of corporate development.
Although the 900MHz spectrum could be used for private networks for different types of industries, Anterix is focused on utilities because that industry already has networking experience. Utilities have been building their own communications networks for decades and using them for emergency response and meter reading as well as supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA).
Plus, utilities have also been working closely with the FCC to find additional broadband spectrum so they could deploy broadband networks that will help them control and monitor their power networks. For example, utilities could use a private LTE network to alert them when a power line is down and then decommission it to prevent it from starting a wildfire. Schwartz said that while a sensor could be used to detect a falling power line, only a low latency network like LTE could deliver that information quickly enough to prevent a potential disaster.
Anterix is already working with a number of utilities on pilots, including Southern Company, the New York Power Authority, Exalon and Duke, among others.
For example, Ameren has signed a letter of intent for a long-term lease of Anterix's spectrum to use it for a private LTE network. Ameren has been testing LTE technology using equipment from Nokia and CommScope as well as spectrum from Anterix and AT&T. Schwartz said that the company was able to find 15 different use cases for the LTE network and is moving ahead with commercialization of it.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) also conducted a trial with Anterix that involved seven utilities. Schwartz said that NREL tested different ways an LTE network could help utilities monitor, control and manage renewable energy that is generated by wind farms and solar panels at the edge of the power grid.
But Anterix isn't alone in its targeting of utility companies for private networks. Wireless operators are also eying the enterprise private network business as a possible use case for 5G. Using network slicing capabilities made possible by the standalone 5G standard, wireless operators could dedicate a slice of their 5G network to a utility. However, Schwartz says that he believes utilities are looking at private networks because they want a certain level of operating control and they also have coverage requirements that most wireless operators will not be able to meet.
"They require coverage in areas where there are no people," Schwartz said. "They need coverage in places where most wireless network coverage doesn't exist."
But the 900 MHz spectrum band isn't the only spectrum that utilities are looking at for their private networks. The ongoing 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum auction also offers a chance for utilities to secure their own spectrum licenses for an LTE network. And there are several utilities that have registered their interest in participating in the auction, including Alabama Power Company, Muscatine Power and Water and Southern California Edison Company.
— Sue Marek, special to Light Reading. Follow her @suemarek.