Meet the Biggest Private Wireless Network Operator You've Never Heard ofMeet the Biggest Private Wireless Network Operator You've Never Heard of
Infrastructure Networks covers 130,000 square miles of US territory with a high-speed 4G LTE network. But its services aren't designed for mobile phones.
January 20, 2020
The company covers 130,000 square miles of US territory with high-speed mobile data services. It owns vast stretches of 700MHz spectrum licenses. It counts around 80 employees managing around 100 cell towers transmitting 4G LTE signals from Nokia AirScale equipment.
It's a privately held company called Infrastructure Networks, and it's not in the mobile phone business.
"We're oil and gas people, by background," says CEO Mark Slaughter with a slight west Texas twang. "It's a different situation when you're talking about oil and gas."
The enormous wireless network owned and operated by Infrastructure Networks is only available to industrial companies like Halliburton and Schlumberger. That effectively makes Infrastructure Networks a major player in the private wireless networking industry in the US -- the company's network basically eliminates the need for its customers to build their own private networks in hard-to-reach, oil-rich areas of the US.
Figure 1: Infrastructure Networks covers some of the biggest oil and gas areas of the US.
(Source: Infrastructure Networks)
"We didn't really design the network to provide service to a handset," explains Stan Hughey, the company's CTO and co-founder. He said Infrastructure Networks, founded in 2011, has constructed a 4G LTE network specifically designed for industrial data applications. Oil pump monitoring, technician communications and video surveillance are the kinds of things Infrastructure Networks' customers are looking for. And they're not in the market for "good enough" services -- Hughey said the company often deals in service-level agreements that promise network reliability in the realm of 99.9% or 99.99%.
Those are the kinds of numbers you typically only see available through wired networks.
"That's an important asset in this business," Slaughter explains.
Growing and expanding
Since getting started, Infrastructure Networks has enjoyed some significant traction in recent years. The company got moving with an investment from Altira, but shifted into high gear in 2018 with an investment from Apollo Global Management. The company won't disclose the amount of the investments, but Slaughter said they're in the millions of dollars.
That funding helped Infrastructure Networks fund a project to expand its coverage area and upgrade its network equipment to "5G-ready" gear. That means the company can begin offering 5G as soon as customers ask for it. Hughey said they might do so in specific, high-data areas where sensor management and video monitoring is going on. "A lot of video applications are driving growth," Hughey says.
"It's really leading to a world of greater automation," Slaughter adds. "Our technology is foundational to bringing the digital oil field to life."
To put Infrastructure Networks' 100-tower buildout into perspective, U.S. Cellular counts around 6,500 cell sites in service for its 5 million customers, while Shentel owns or leases around 420 towers for its 1 million-strong customer base. T-Mobile and Sprint operate roughly 110,000 total towers.
Infrastructure Networks said its towers are usually 300-400 feet tall. That's taller than most normal macro cell towers, but the goal is to cover bigger geographic territories. Hughey says the company's towers are owned by the likes of Crown Castle or American Tower.
A new private wireless play
The interesting part of Infrastructure Networks' story is how the company sits in the growing trend toward private wireless networks. Such networks are either being deployed or tested by companies like Ford and Charter, and are intended for internal uses like employee communications or asset monitoring. Indeed, the biggest nuclear disassembly plant in the US -- the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas -- is testing its own wireless network for "the use of wireless LTE communications for communications within the Pantex Plant."
But Infrastructure Networks is sitting one level above this opportunity. The company owns its own network, but sells it to customers as if it was a private network for them. In that way, the company essentially toes the line between a public network like those from AT&T and Verizon that are available to everyone, and a private network owned and operated by one specific customer.
So is this a good position to be in? As a privately held company, Infrastructure Networks won't provide details on its financials, but Slaughter says the company sees its immediate oil-and-gas opportunity as worth up to $200 million. And he made sure to point out that this figure does not include other sectors such as agriculture or state or government usage. Or, potentially, providing roaming services in rural areas to the big wireless network operators.
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