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Private Networks

Shipping Giant UPS to Test Private Wireless Network in Montana

UPS, one of the world's largest shipping companies, is testing a significant private wireless network at its distribution center in Billings, Mont.

Although details about the effort are scarce, the development yet again underscores the growing trend toward private wireless networks operated by enterprises, government agencies and others. Perhaps not surprisingly, the topic has generated quite a bit of interest among wireless networking equipment vendors like Ericsson and Nokia that are keen to expand their sales beyond public wireless network operators such as AT&T and Verizon.

In a filing with the FCC, UPS offers some tantalizing hints about its private wireless plans. The company said it plans to operate its own 4G LTE network across 900MHz and 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum bands, and to also leverage public wireless network offerings. The goal, the company explained, would be to "provide Internet connectivity to various client devices -- smart phones, tablets, push-to-talk (PTT) devices, and edge routers supporting wired connectivity to computers and other network devices within a 10 kilometer radius of the site."

UPS said it inked an agreement with startup Anterix to use the company's 900MHz spectrum for the tests. 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum, meantime, is unlicensed and can be used by anyone.

"We intend to leverage the Anterix spectrum to migrate the user data plane to UPS's internal data network so testing can continue with production UPS applications," UPS wrote in its filing with the FCC. "The subject eNodeB [basestation] will then be deployed in a common network with a CBRS LTE infrastructure. The intent is to compare performance across the Anterix and CBRS RF networks, and ultimately demonstrate the ability for client devices to roam between them, as well as commercial LTE networks."

And in an indication of the size of the test, UPS asked for FCC permission to test equipment from a wide range of suppliers. Listed in the company's application are basestations and antennas from the likes of Nokia, Ericsson and Air-Lynx, as well as routers from Encore Networks and Cradlepoint, tablets from Apple and Samsung and phones from Cat and Sonim.

"We are certainly optimistic about the benefits private LTE and 5G networks might bring, and we are actively researching and testing a number of solutions in this space. But we do not have any additional comment at this time beyond what is already in the public record," wrote Tim Totten, chief of global network services for UPS, in response to questions on the topic from Light Reading. Totten is also listed as the main executive in charge of UPS's efforts in Billings in the company's filing with the FCC.

Grand ambitions
Although it's difficult to assess the company's objectives, UPS's tests certainly indicate an advanced level of interest in the topic of private wireless networks. Specifically, the company noted that it's planning to test operations across multiple spectrum bands, and will look at how those operations might interact with public wireless networks. And the company listed equipment from a wide range of suppliers, indicating it may be holding a "bake off" to determine which supplier it might wish to move forward with in a commercial setting.

Those kinds of elements do not often show up in testing requests filed with the FCC (the agency is the government arm in charge of managing spectrum usage across the US).

Further, UPS is already a heavy user of wireless technology. For example, it began using AT&T's 2.5G GPRS network almost 20 years ago to connect thousands of its drivers to the Internet. More recently, it scored governmental approval for drone deliveries ahead of tech giants Amazon and Alphabet.

And UPS ships 20.7 million packages and documents each day across more than 220 countries and territories out of 1,800 facilities globally.

Thus, whatever its wireless ambitions, they likely are not iterative or meager.

Signs of things to come
UPS is one of a large and growing number of entities that has signaled its interest in building its own private, wireless network. Such efforts indicate a desire by companies, government agencies, cities and others to have direct control over their wireless communications, rather than remaining at the mercy of a public wireless network that could get overloaded during the Super Bowl, for example.

Among vendors, Nokia has worked to stand at the forefront of the private wireless trend. The company late last year said that it runs more than 120 private wireless networks across the globe, including for Vienna Airport, mining company Minera Las Bambas, Sendai City and manufacturing outfit Ukkoverkot/Konecranes.

And a wide range of other players are inching toward private wireless networks in the US. 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." Separately, Ford is planning to build a private LTE/5G network in the 3.5GHz CBRS band in a parking structure on its Dearborn, Mich., campus to test connected vehicle services. And GTL, one of the two big US telecommunications providers to inmates in prisons, is looking to test voice and video applications on a private LTE network running in 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum.

Even the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas -- the nation's biggest nuclear disassembly plant -- appears to be preparing to test a private LTE network that can be powered by drones.

While there's no guarantee that all these tests will turn into commercial deployments, they certainly reflect what is a growing trend toward private wireless networks. How this might affect public operators like AT&T and Verizon is unclear, given that such private networks could reduce the amount of money that Ford or MGM pay for wireless connectivity.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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