Glenn Smithson, the general manager of 7 Cedars Casino in Washington state, had a connectivity problem.
His casino is located in the hinterlands of Washington, where quality cellular signals are hard to find. And gamblers who can't immediately brag about their winnings on Instagram aren't happy gamblers.
"We get OK signal, but it's not acceptable in today's world," he said. "We knew we needed to do something."
7 Cedars' ongoing multimillion-dollar casino upgrade served as the perfect opportunity to not only improve the operation's indoor signal reception but also to add fancy new wireless features and functions, like improved employee communications systems and keyless entry.
"It's a game changer for us," Smithson said.
The problem that Smithson ran into -- a problem that a growing number of smaller real estate operations are facing -- is that increasingly frugal wireless network operators like AT&T and Verizon aren't really eager to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on new in-building cellular systems in remote places like Sequim, Washington. Yes, they'll spend money to put 5G into big NFL stadiums, but rural casinos, churches, smaller office buildings and other such "tier two" locations are another matter entirely.
CBRS creates a new option
To be clear, Smithson at 7 Cedars isn't the only person who has faced a problem like this. A wide range of vendors -- from inbuilding startup Zinwave to McKinstry, a nationwide construction and engineering company -- sell in-building products designed to allow building owners to install their own cellular systems. However, these systems still require vendors to closely cooperate with wireless network operators like AT&T and T-Mobile, considering the systems broadcast on the operators' licensed spectrum holdings. Meaning, wireless network operators must sign off on any in-building network that transmits in their spectrum bands -- and the building owner can't also use that cellular network for their own purposes, like a keyless entry system.
That's partly why the newly freed 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum band has generated so much interest. It's unlicensed spectrum that can be used by anyone. And it's ideal for in-building LTE networks. And it's already supported by a growing number of popular smartphones, including the new Samsung Galaxy S10 and the Apple iPhone 11.
There's just one problem: Operators such as AT&T and Verizon typically don't support "rogue" CBRS networks. Meaning, 7 Cedars can build a state-of-the-art LTE network in 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum in its Sequim casino, but gamblers still won't be able to connect to Instagram without some kind of agreement between their cellular provider and 7 Cedars.
But that all could soon change.
The hunt for a 'direct connection'
"It really depends on the carrier preference for how much control they want over the customer transition" from a public network to a private network, explained Stephen Bye in a recent interview. Bye is the outgoing CEO of Connectivity Wireless, a newly formed company playing in the in-building wireless space. He said operators have two choices when it comes to supporting networks constructed and operated by third parties: They can either support them through a direct connection, or they can treat them like they would a roaming partner.
Bye said operators typically directly connect into networks in locations where they already manage nearby systems, like NFL stadiums in major metro areas. But they might prefer roaming agreements for networks in locations where they don't.
"I think it really is a service provider carrier preference as to how many direct connections they would have," Bye explained, adding that direct connections into private CBRS networks "can be done -- people are exploring that, and I think it will come down to a business/customer experience/operational decision as to which path they [the operators] take."
Indeed, Iyad Tarazi of Federated Wireless, one of the companies tasked by the FCC to manage CBRS spectrum, said that he expects unnamed wireless network operators to begin testing direct connections into third-party CBRS networks starting next year. He declined to provide details. Officials from AT&T and Verizon did not respond to questions from Light Reading on the topic. (It's worth noting that both operators are already investing in the CBRS ecosystem, given AT&T's plans to use 3.5GHz for fixed wireless and Verizon's plans to use it for additional network capacity.)
However, others don't expect much movement on the "direct connection" topic, at least in the near term. For example, Todd Landry of CBRS network equipment company JMA Wireless suggested that US operators borrow from a European standard to handle connections into third-party CBRS networks. Specifically, he pointed to Joint Operator Specifications (JOTS) in the UK, which is essentially a series of technical requirements for third-party in-building systems that the main operators in the UK agree to support.
And JMA's Greg Dial proposed that Syniverse, which handles a variety of roaming and text messaging services across wireless operators in the US and elsewhere, be the company to manage those third-party CBRS network connections.
Already ATIS -- an association that develops communications standards for telecom providers in North America -- is beginning initial work on specifications for 5G in-building networks.
Big money in private wireless CBRS
It's worth pointing out that there's plenty of money on the table to entice wireless network operators to figure out how to handle third-party CBRS networks. For example, Las Vegas hotel giant MGM Resorts International appears to be planning to build a massive private CBRS network that it could use for a variety of services, including improved "visibility of guests." While the hotelier could definitely use the network for its own, private purposes, it would also undoubtedly improve operators' coverage inside MGM hotels if the two sides reach some kind of roaming or direct connection agreement.
MGM's wireless chief Jay Floyd declined to answer questions from Light Reading on the project.
Further, MGM is just one of a large and growing number of entities looking at the potential of "private" wireless networks. Ford, GTL, CommScope, Landmark Dividend and Charter Communications are among the players that have either announced or hinted at their interest in building private wireless networks in the US, mainly using CBRS spectrum. If the big wireless operators agree to some kind of support mechanism for such efforts, all those networks could also presumably supplement operators' public LTE network footprints.
Perhaps not surprisingly, vendors are already salivating at the prospect of selling equipment to the likes of Ford, Charter and even 7 Cedars Casino. "The CBRS equipment market, including small cell infrastructure end devices, excluding smartphones, will grow from less than $50 million this year to over $850 million in 2024," noted Mobile Experts analyst Kyung Mun in a release. "Half of this market will be driven by the mobility application in 2024, with other major revenue in private LTE, neutral hosts and fixed wireless."
Already cell tower giant SBA Communications is teasing the opportunity to investors. The company recently said that, in addition to all the outdoor cell towers it owns, it also manages roughly 14,000 in-building cellular networks, mainly using Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS).
"We believe CBRS is going to be a so much better economics solution than DAS that it's going to open up just so many more venues," said SBA CEO Jeffrey Stoops during his company's recent quarterly conference call with investors, according to a transcript of the event. Stoops explained that CBRS networks using small cells, which are cheaper and easier to install and maintain than DAS operations, will be attractive to smaller venues.
Finding the roaming loophole
Back in his Washington casino, 7 Cedars' Smithson plans to use a novel solution to his coverage problem. He's building a private CBRS network with vendor Geoverse that will be able to connect gamblers using 3.5GHz CBRS phones directly to Instagram, all without any further steps. That's because Geoverse is owned by ATN International, a public company that has been operating telecom systems across Latin America, the Caribbean and the US for 30 years. ATN International also owns Commnet Wireless, which provides roaming services to the big network operators in a variety of rural areas across the US.
As a result, Geoverse's network for 7 Cedars' casino can register itself as a legitimate, approved roaming network under the existing roaming agreements ATN International has established with all the major US wireless carriers.
"Geoverse is actually a wireless carrier like AT&T or Verizon," explained Brian Oaks, a VP at Geoverse who is overseeing the 7 Cedars project. Oaks declined to discuss the financial details between 7 Cedars and Geoverse.
"And so for someone that wasn't a wireless carrier, this would be fairly difficult," he added.
Clearly, 7 Cedars' network setup in Sequim with Geoverse is a bit of a sidestep to the entire issue of operators' support for private, third-party networks, including those in the unlicensed CBRS spectrum band. And it likely won't scale if the sector takes off, particularly given the fact that wireless network operators are pretty selective when it comes to their roaming partners. But it unmistakably highlights a need in the industry that operators will probably have to address, one way or the other. But how they do so -- and what kinds of financial arrangements they agree to support -- remains unclear at best.