Benelux Countries Demonstrate Significance of Spectrum for Private LTE Networks
By Koen Mioulet
Monday, August 31, 2020 | Comments
The Benelux, consisting of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, features a lively scene for the establishment of private LTE networks and critical mobile networks. To a large extent this is due to spectrum availability for all sorts of private networks, or non-public networks (NPN). This article looks at the accelerating effects of spectrum availability and the innovative emergence of both networks and novel niche players in this domain and displays a couple of convincing examples of new private mobile networks from real industrial live in the Benelux.

Mobile networks for critical usage
The readers of RadioResource International need little convincing to understand the merits of tailored mobile networks for designated verticals and mobile broadband services with a guaranteed quality of service (QoS) to serve their needs and their operational processes.

Verticals such as factories, ports, airports, utilities, and petrochemical plants all have very essential processes for which communications is essential. We will use the term business-critical here, thereby setting the term mission-critical aside for the nationwide mobile networks that are typically deployed by the emergency services. Business-critical mobile usage has long been served by known and proven voice-only systems, of which professional mobile radio (PMR) and TETRA are well known ones, as well as by data mobile networks such as Wi-Fi or mobile subscriptions to a mobile network operator’s (MNO) network. Trends indicate that these applications are converging over time to one comprehensive corporate wireless network: typically private LTE for the near term with gradual phasing over to private 5G as standards evolve. 5G is completely equipped for this with its known ‘triangle’ of feature sets and its ability to ‘slice’ a set of key performance indicators (KPIs) for tailored performance and designated usage.

KPIs for Critical Applications
The essence of an enterprise-specific or corporate mobile network or service is the ability to tailor and warrant KPIs that match the operational requirements of the vertical. These can either be availability — of “X 9s” — or throughput or latency – of X milliseconds or less — for time-critical applications such as vehicle control. All are related to the processes the mobile service has to support. As we’ll see later, there have already been very demanding applications in ports, airports, industry and utilities. They all have business criticality in common.

The fact that such private mobile networks for verticals have over time become critical to their owners is illustrated by the fact that these users have started organizing themselves to develop required KPIs and compare use cases and jointly lobby for spectrum, which is after all the raw material for any mobile network. This has led to the availability of private spectrum in quite a few markets; though, the situation does differ per country.

Facilitation by standards
Mobile standards are being designed globally by the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), from early generation GSM up to current 5G specifications. Due to work groups such as the TCCA Critical Communications Broadband Group (CCBG), the standards that have seen the light lately have embraced a couple of features that verticals find very essential for corporate networks, be it voice or data. A couple of obvious and typical features for enterprise mobile networks are:
• Push-to-talk (PTT) functionality for voice and data, something users have come to appreciate in their existing PMR networks
• Group calls, again as we’re used to from PMR, but now for voice as well as for data
• Direct mode or handset-to-handset communication, an essential function to ‘bypass’ the network in critical circumstances if needed
• Priority and pre-emption, a function required to guarantee availability to at least subsets of users.

LTE and 5G standards have already embraced all the features, as they appeared in 3GPP Release 13. Likewise, the standards incorporate subsets of specs that facilitate internet of things (IoT) or machine-type mobile communications, such as narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) or LTE-M, both LTE-subsets incorporated as of 3GPP Release 14 and also available under 5G. With the usage of 3GPP standards, the user can implicitly benefit from all these features that can be made available wholly or in part for a corporate mobile network.

This summer, the standard reached Release 16. In 5G, the standardization continues to develop specific features and KPIs related to verticals and industries, notably ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC) and massive IoT.

Build or Buy?
When drafting the requirements for a corporate mobile network or service, there is the very fundamental choice often referred to as ‘make or buy’. In the context of a corporate mobile network, this choice essentially differentiates between establishing your own corporate network and managing it, either yourself or through a qualified third party, alternatively sourcing the entire mobile provisioning as a service.

This choice is rather fundamental as it involves different partners to work with and different skill sets within one’s own organization. Possessing and running your own network will inevitably require some LTE/5G, spectrum and networking knowledge. Sourcing as a service will require management of the agreed KPIs and service level but requires less intricate knowledge of mobile networks. Also, the as a service option allows an operating expense (OPEX) model, whereas owning the network will often boil down to a capital expense (CAPEX) model, hence an investment.

Mobile players and new entrants
Developing the own network option will require sourcing from an LTE/5G vendor such as, but not limited, to Nokia and Ericsson or system integrators that work with either these carrier-grade players or the likes of, for instance, Druid or Quortus. Another option is sourcing from other companies that develop enterprise-specific LTE core networks for LTE and 5G, running as a service out of software rather than being composed of dedicated hardware. Thus, these core networks are very scalable, also downward.

The as-a-service model will likely entail a service from an MNO that offers segment specific “sliced” services or a service provider from a new league of enterprise mobile service providers (ESPs) or mobile ESPs, or neutral hosts as they are often called, that have recently emerged. The Benelux already features some of these.

Interestingly, the TCCA CCBG wrote a white paper on critical mobile broadband back in 2018, which was published at Critical Communications World (CCW) in Berlin in May 2018. Even then, the white paper identified the anticipated emergence of a new league of players in between the classical network vendor and the known MNO, offering ESP networks and mobile nationwide mobile services. This new league was envisioned to be niche specific, tailored to one or some verticals and able to provide QoS on the service that meets the demands of the individual vertical or corporate. Back in 2018, when the paper was first drafted, we could envision the necessity and emergence of such new players. Meanwhile, they have actually emerged on the market as we’ll elaborate for the Benelux further down.

Spectrum for critical corporate mobile networks
The most essential raw material for any mobile network or service is spectrum. Spectrum possession is a valuable asset displayed time and again by the amounts operators pay in auctions for access to suitable spectrum for their mobile networks. Likewise, any private mobile network operator or service provider will have to dispose of spectrum.

If an operator were to offer to verticals a tailored mobile service, that operator would most probably do so by deploying its already available licensed spectrum with potentially additional features such as slicing to obtain required QoS. For either a vendor, a system integrator or an ESP, however, access to any spectrum is necessary. These actors can either revert to the MNO’s for shared or exclusive use of the MNO’s spectrum at a fee, which is not often granted or may prove costly. Alternatively, the new player can dispose of designated spectrum issued by their regulator for the specific purpose of enterprise or campus networks and/or geographically confined local area usage. This spectrum is not internationally harmonized, yet is available in some countries, including the Netherlands.

Aggregating demand
There are some organizations for aggregating the corporate demand for critical mobile services. They are varied and include Agurre in France, the Spectrum Policy Forum in the U.K., association KMBG in the Netherlands and the 5GACIA industry alliance for process automation. These efforts are still somewhat fragmented, local and uncoordinated, but they have started and practice shows that looking for commonalities does work and collectively articulating demand leads to allocation of spectrum as is the case in France, Germany, the UK and the Netherlands.

In Europe, some countries like the Netherlands have allocated 100 megahertz of spectrum in the bands that are also foreseen for later 5G usage by MNOs, including bands 42 and 43 and 3.4 – 3.6/3.6 – 3.8 GHz. Both the Netherlands and Germany have made 100 megahertz of spectrum available in band 43 for enterprise purposes. This reduces the amount of spectrum to be auctioned for MNO 5G networks to 300 megahertz. The availability of this spectrum in a band that is a 3GPP band and has a LTE/5G device ecosystem is no small gesture and constitutes recognition of the relevance of corporate mobile networks.

Spectrum for private networks, some countries
In France and through Agurre, relevant national users can dispose of 40 megahertz of spectrum in the 2.6 GHz TDD bands for enterprise purposes. In the UK, the intended band for private usage is the 3.8 – 4.2 GHz band. In Germany, the 5GACIA alliance focuses on 4G and 5G networks for plant automation in for instance factories, warehouses and petrochemical parks and now disposes of the 100 MHz in the 3.5 GHz band mentioned previously. 5GACIA encompasses all large German manufacturers and expands internationally.

The best known and widely published case of private spectrum is the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) regime in the United States, where through a distribution and application mechanism, verticals can dispose of shared spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band. CBRS is the most developed application of (shared) private spectrum and tends to receive a lot of attention in the media.

Spectrum in the Netherlands
Spectrum availability can accelerate private networks and practice in the Netherlands shows this. Not only does the Dutch regulator provide the mentioned 100 megahertz of private spectrum for campus and enterprise networks. There have already been 179 applications already. More so, the Netherlands has also made available a band of 5 megahertz in the 1.8 GHz domain, the so-called extended DECT GSM guard band. That slice of spectrum has been available to verticals and niche application for quite some time. This band has been extensively deployed by integrators and ESP’s for the provisioning of on-premises tailored private GSM services for years, often replacing DECT or trunking systems.

In the Netherlands, the uptake has been very strong not only in healthcare institutions but also in warehousing, production and other verticals. A study commissioned by the Dutch regulator itself revealed that the shared spectrum for local and vertical networks has already been used by verticals in 500-700 cases. In a country the size of the Netherlands, that is a convincing number; demonstrating that there is a large market for enterprise mobile networks provided the spectrum is available. This same spectrum is still available today and now used for private LTE systems. Thus, in the Netherlands, one can dispose of two bands for private purposes: 5 megahertz in the 1.8 GHz guard band and 100 megahertz (MHz) in the 3.5 GHz band 43.

The existence of private spectrum in the guard band alone has led to 100s of private networks in the Netherlands over the last decade. The additional availability of the mentioned 3.5 GHz private spectrum option has again led to 100s of applications and usages in industry and in neighborhood or campus mobility.

An often quoted and very convincing example of a private network running a very business-critical application is the private LTE network in the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. That port, once the world’s largest but now surpassed by Chinese ports, has a very large container terminal called European Container Terminal (ECT). At the ECT, there are 100s of autonomous vehicles, autonomous and remotely controlled cranes and AGV’s and remote controlled straddle carriers to unload, move and distribute containers over the terrain and onto trains and trucks. Apart from the quayside cranes, all autonomous vehicles and cranes are controlled over a private LTE network. This application is truly business critical; without the network, vehicles stand still, containers do not get delivered and goods do not arrive in the warehouses. Thus, supplies in Holland and the European hinterland would dry up.

This network is a good example of what spectrum availability may yield. It deploys a Druid core (EPC) and some 20 Airspan radios in band 43 all over the site of the terminal and 100s of vehicle mounted routers for the vehicle control software that runs over the network.

Other applications are of course abundant and include:
• The airport of Amsterdam holds a spectrum license in 3.5 GHz for potential deployment of a private LTE system for all airport processes for which a market consultation has already been held.
• System integrator Avics has upgraded an existing private GSM system in a healthcare institute to private LTE, replacing Wi-Fi and meeting local ‘NEN2575’ criteria for requirements for life-saving critical alarms.

Largely thanks to the mentioned availability of multiple spectrum options, the Netherlands has seen an emergence of new novel players in the private network or NPN area. First of all, the available spectrum has allowed known integrators such as Koning en Hartman and Spie to become full service providers of managed private networks, providing a system and the management of it. In addition, new players are offering full service network as a service options, even all the way up to funding a network and making it available in an OPEX model. These new players include, Cellnex, which operates enterprise networks in countries such as Spain and Italy and is also present in the Netherlands. There is Finnish service provider Ukkoverkot, recently rebranded as Edzcom and acquired by Cellnex, which runs private port and airport networks, as well as industrial mobile networks in Scandinavia. Edzcom claims to have 26 of those enterprise specific mobile networks already and is expanding towards the U.K. and France as well.

There is also Priocom, a new venture, in the Netherlands that offers mobile network services with certain KPIs as an MVNO for verticals, making use of an arrangement it has with an MNO on whose network they deliver the service. In addition to the ones mentioned, other new entrants have emerged in the Netherlands, displaying the pending demand for private mobile services from verticals and the stimulating effect the availability of private spectrum has for the emergence of new providers and offerings for industry niches.

Spectrum in Belgium
In Belgium, a different situation emerges. The Belgian regulator so far hasn’t allocated a band for private usage yet, as its Dutch and German neighbors have. So, for a private mobile network, one would have to either revert to the MNOs for a spectrum arrangement or apply for an MNO-based service. However, there is a player called Citymesh that acquired 3.5 GHz spectrum some years back, originally intended for backhaul of urban Wi-Fi networks. BiPT, the regulator, did offer the spectrum to MNOs back in 2015 but there was no interest then. That very spectrum is now also deployed by Citymesh for campus networks and enterprise mobility in addition to backhaul for Wi-Fi networks they have been offering and operating for quite some time already. With the emergence of private mobile network demand, Citymesh on occasions has also granted access to its spectrum for individual use cases and third-party private networks. Examples are the seaport of Zeebrugge, where a private LTE network was deployed for vehicle control. Brussels Zaventem airport has also started deploying a private LTE system for its apron processes based on a network with Nokia equipment. Here too, Citymesh makes use of its existing license in 3.5 GHz and deploys it for this private network purpose. Thus, Citymesh has not only positioned itself as both an operator of Wi-Fi and LTE networks for campuses but also as a wholesale provider of spectrum for new ESPs.

The case of the Benelux has demonstrated, notably in the Netherlands, what the availability of private spectrum can do for the enterprise critical mobile network market, for the emergence of new players and for the establishment of novel service formats for verticals such as network as a service. Also, the alternative deployment of existing licenses can create novel mobile offering as Belgium has demonstrated. The demand for enterprise mobility is evident from the 100s of systems that have been realized over the years in the Netherlands alone.

New full service and fully funded formats are available for those verticals or enterprises that do critical mobile broadband or internet of things (IoT) but would rather source it as a service and preserve their CAPEX for investments closer to their core business.


Koen Mioulet is the portfolio manager for enterprise mobility at Cellnex Netherlands.



 
 
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Comments
On 9/3/20, Regnier said:
Nothing to add Thank You Koen for this clear article.
Christian Regnier


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