Verizon’s neutral host pledge sparks cheer and concern – Light Reading

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Verizon announced this week that it is now supporting neutral host 5G networks. The first deployment is with Cummins, a manufacturer and distributor of engines and power equipment, and network equipment vendor Ericsson.

Neutral host networks in the US allow a venue owner to purchase and install its own private 3.5GHz CBRS wireless network and then connect it to a big, public wireless network operator through the Multi Operator Core Network (MOCN) standard. By doing so, the venue can offer indoor cellular coverage – an important stipulation for venues with lots of foot traffic like hotels and hospitals.

AT&T and T-Mobile have appeared willing to link their operations into these third-party networks, but Verizon has been the odd man out.

Some companies providing neutral host networks are not sure that Verizon’s commitment matches what AT&T and T-Mobile are already doing. Indeed, one executive who asked to remain anonymous described Verizon’s latest announcement as a “head fake.”

Verizon’s approach to neutral host networks involves the operator acting as the network’s “anchor tenant,” with Verizon handling the design, construction and maintenance of the network. Other operators are then invited onto Verizon’s network. AT&T and T-Mobile, meanwhile, are supporting networks built and maintained by third parties.

The developments highlight the complex nature of wireless network design and deployment. Such networks can potentially be built by a variety of owners and shared among many types of users.

Verizon’s news

Verizon this week said it worked with Ericsson to build a private, neutral host network for Cummins’ Jamestown Engine Plant in Lakewood, New York. Cummins said it will use the network to connect employees, robots and other devices across its 2-million-square-foot campus. As noted by Mobile World Live, the network runs across Verizon’s C-band and millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum bands.

Aside from Cummins’ private wireless applications, the network can also act as an extension of public wireless networks. For example, Verizon customers traveling through Cummins’ campus in New York won’t lose their connection – they’ll remain connected to the Internet on the Cummins’ network just as they would on Verizon’s public network.

“All the connectivity bases are covered with this solution, and the efficient architecture makes it cost-effective, easy to maintain, and easy to add onto as operations grow and evolve. Plus, employees and guests onsite can keep their normal cellular connectivity without any headaches or extra steps. It’s a truly holistic solution,” said Verizon’s Jennifer Artley, SVP of 5G acceleration at Verizon Business.

But it’s not clear whether Verizon’s neutral host network will draw in any additional participants.

“Obviously the devil is in the detail here – will AT&T and/or T-Mobile (or others, such as cablecos or MVNOs) sign up as additional tenants?” Disruptive Wireless analyst Dean Bubley wondered in a social media post.

A Verizon representative didn’t immediately respond to questions from Light Reading on the topic.

Neutral host momentum

As Light Reading has previously reported, the neutral host trend gained steam throughout 2023, particularly after AT&T and T-Mobile signaled their intention to support connections into third-party private wireless networks.

The neutral host model represents a significant update to the old way of providing indoor cellular coverage. Under the traditional distributed antenna system (DAS) model, large venues like sports stadiums buy expensive and difficult to install equipment that works in the spectrum bands supported by all the big public wireless network operators in the US.

The trend also represents a new twist on the general idea of neutral host networks. For example, some cell tower operators consider themselves neutral host companies because their towers can support radios from multiple network operators. Another take on the idea involves network sharing, such as the newly expanded agreement in Japan between KDDI and SoftBank that could eventually cover up to 100,000 basestations.

But neutral host networks in the US have piggybacked on the private wireless networking trend. After all, if a big company like Cummins invests in a private wireless network, it may also want that network to provide coverage to visiting customers or suppliers.

That was exactly Meta’s goal. The company helped pioneer the idea of a neutral host CBRS network to provide indoor coverage for customers of T-Mobile, AT&T – and Verizon.

Jostling for position

A wide range of companies – including Federated Wireless, Dense Air, Celona, Kajeet, InfiniG, Druid Software and Halo Networks – are hoping that Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile all come to some kind of agreement on neutral host networks.

“There is a lot of momentum happening in our space,” said Joel Lindholm of InfiniG. Indeed, InfiniG and cable company Cox recently deployed a neutral host network supporting AT&T and T-Mobile customers at Arizona State University.

Celona CEO and founder Rajeev Shah explained that cost remains the key element in such networks. He said neutral host networks only make sense if they’re cheap to install and maintain.

Interestingly, Shah said Celona remains on track to support neutral host networks for T-Mobile and AT&T customers. But Verizon has not yet signed on to Celona’s neutral host offering – despite Verizon’s 2022 agreement with Celona for private wireless networking.

“We have a very strong partnership with Verizon,” Shah said this week.

Regardless, the neutral host opportunity is clear enough that Dense Air – backed by Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners (SIP) – plans to pay for the construction and maintenance of its indoor networks. Meaning, Dense Air will fully finance the cost of its Airspan-supplied network equipment, as well as the installation of that equipment. The company’s landlord customers then simply rent the resulting network back from Dense Air.

Jim Estes, CEO of Dense Air, said indoor wireless connectivity is now “the fourth utility” for building owners, alongside electricity, water and heating and air conditioning. But Estes wouldn’t say how long it takes for Dense Air to recoup its investments into building such neutral host indoor networks.

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