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In-building reception of mobile service is a prerequisite in multitenant commercial and residential properties. Office environments in which individuals cannot check their smartphones or place a call during a break in a meeting or conference leave impressions—negative ones. Asking a resident to pay $2000 or more per month in a Class A apartment complex having poor wireless reception is a non-starter. Reliance on WiFi calling is a high-risk proposition.

The challenge in both commercial and residential multi-tenant properties is that energy-efficient building materials interfere with RF signals and cell coverage is largely unavailable above the 21st or 22nd floors. In MDUs, residents’ use of landline telephone service whether POTS, stand-alone VoIP or over-the-top VoIP is depicted in graphs and tables having steep, downward slopes. For owners of high-end properties, spotty mobile service coverage diminishes the appeal of a residential unit or prospective office location.

This challenge is compounded by the realities that (1) wireless carriers have limited Capex and Opex funds that are allocated on internal ROI assessments, and (2) these services providers are not obligated to extend their service to residents, tenants and visitors inside of multi-tenant residential or commercial properties. The same holds true for hotels. Carrier panelists at almost any wireless infrastructure conference emphasize that the wireless carriers will rarely, if at all, “take the investment” to support distributed antennas systems (DAS) (including “neutral host DAS systems”) and the balance of in-building wireless equipment (IBW) to extend service into and throughout multi-tenant properties.

Wireless carriers are more likely to fund or help fund investment in IBW systems to support wireless reception in major venues (convention centers, stadiums and arenas) and at major locations for their enterprise customers. The permissible use of mobile service signal boosters in commercial spaces is not a solution for many multitenant properties, even if the FCC adopts a simplified registration procedure for wideband (multi-carrier) boosters.

Another reality is that the RF elements of in-building wireless systems are subject to technological obsolescence as wireless carriers transition to higher capacity (5G) or more efficient transmission technologies that likely will occur multiple times during the life of a modern building.

Fundamentally, property owners must determine whether in-building wireless is an amenity or an essential utility. Wireless carriers must also demonstrate a higher level of flexibility in bringing solutions (though not necessarily funding IBW systems) to facilitate more reliable in-building wireless service. Hopefully, the impetus will not be a series of emergencies or tragedies that could have been avoided through reliable in-building wireless signal coverage.

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At the end of March, Intel, IBM, AT&T, GE and Cisco announced the formation of “the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the Internet of Things, to ‘improve the integration of the physical and digital worlds.’ ”

The Industrial Internet means different things to different people, but most would agree the concept encompasses wireless connectivity supporting the transfer of data from machines to software applications on a real time or near-real time basis and, possibly, directing operation of the machines; and, potentially, the analysis of this data to determine useful correlations, trends and anomalies (“big data analytics”).  Operators of the electric transmission and distribution networks and oil and gas companies operating SCADA networks are longstanding members of the Industrial Internet.

The threshold business question for all M2M applications is whether the various elements deliver the desired end-to-end service in a reliable, secure and economic manner.  These elements include the wireless access option(s) and wireline backhaul arrangement to the data processing resource; the purchase, installation, and management of the remote RF devices; the smartphone, tablet or iPad app (if applicable); the application software or software suite; the data processing resources (cloud-based or maintained by the M2M user); and, the rights in the collected data.

The collection and analysis of the data and metadata generated by the Industrial Internet raise competitive and privacy concerns.  Suppliers and operators of Industrial Internet remote RF equipment and applications must address cyber security broadly, including cyber-related supply chain breaches.  These concerns will be discussed in a later entry in this series.

Another basic question is whether the end-user will act as its M2M systems integrator or look to an end-to-end services provider that offers a complete or near turn-key solution.  Many M2M services pioneers—that continue to maintain a strong market presence, such as Silver Spring Networks and Aeris—provide near turn-key solutions, typically acquiring the commercial wireless services to provide the wireless access component, sometimes in combination with other spectrum resources.

The purchase, installation and management of the RF devices and wireless access component options are closely linked.

RF Device Considerations.  All devices must have an FCC equipment approval to transmit on the proposed frequencies.  RF devices transmitting on commercial wireless services must be approved by the carrier or its authorized agents, as well.  Unlike smartphones and tablets, M2M RF devices operating on wireless carrier spectrum are rarely subsidized by the wireless carriers.

Related considerations are RF device warranties and software licenses, and the installation, management and repair of the devices.  Approaches for assessing supply chain cyber integrity are being implemented.  The time required to deploy or replace thousands of RF devices is a major consideration for large scale M2M deployments.  Another consideration is whether the particular devices have reached or are approaching end-of-life status, such as devices designed to operate on Sprint’s discontinued IDEN network or AT&T’s 2G network.

Wireless Access Component Options.  There are three broad categories of spectrum for M2M applications:

  • Spectrum licensed to the end user;
  • Unlicensed spectrum;
  • Commercial wireless carrier spectrum;
  • Combinations thereof.

Interestingly, many Industrial Internet applications may never traverse commercial wireless networks or the public Internet.

Two primary considerations associated with the wireless access component are availability and reliability.  As a rule, commercial wireless carriers do not offer service level agreements pertaining to availability or priority access; wireless coverage is not guaranteed.  Part 15 of the FCC’s rules explicitly state that devices transmitting on unlicensed spectrum are not protected from harmful interference.  From the perspectives of reliability and availability, licensed spectrum options with adequate bandwidth to support IP-based services or hybrid licensing options such as those currently applicable to 3.65 GHz assignments are often preferable.

Another consideration is cost.  Commercial wireless service pricing may prove too expensive for a large-scale deployment or drive a wireless access solution that consists of some combination of commercial wireless service and unlicensed spectrum or licensed spectrum.  The wireless carriers’ 2-3 year contract term, pricing structures, and early service termination liability service that apply to generally available wireless service are poor fits for many Industrial Internet applications.

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Last week, I escaped from D.C. to NTCA’s TelcoVisions Conference in Las Vegas. Great Content.  Well managed and well-attended.  All Keynotes were top-notch.

The big takeaway is the emphasis NTCA members place on exceeding customer expectations in delivering a range of community-focused services:  the triple play, wireless and more.   Additional revenue opportunities that were highlighted in the conference sessions include Globalstar’s proposed Terrestrial Low Power Service (TLPS), (a potential “Super WiFi” service), Content Delivery Network (CDN) Federations, and M2M services.

I moderated one session and participated in another.

One theme of the panel “Utilities and Rural Service Providers: A Multi-Faceted Opportunity” was that rural electrics’ smart grid data communications are driving expanded investments in fiber and wireless, and that partnering with the rural Services provider in these investments can deliver substantial benefits to both providers and their members.   From the industry, Ryan Bewley, Director of Engineering for electric and telco operator NineStar Connect, highlighted the numerous synergies and benefits of a unified telco and electric engineering staff.  Shannon Clark, CEO and General Manager of Richland Electric Cooperative, explained how his electric cooperative and the rural Services provider realized the importance of delivering high-speed Internet access to their community and took the steps to deliver the same.  Shannon emphasized that straight-forward, member-focused communications between the rural electric and rural Service provider can deliver substantial benefits.

Consultants Mark Momerak of NISC Coop and Steve Senne of Finley Engineering Company provided their perspectives.  Mark emphasized how shared CSR, billing and other back-office software and hardware create and facilitate shared operations and substantial cost savings.  Steve explained how substantial physical plant investments on the electric side support shared investments by both the electric cooperative and rural Services provided.  Steve echoed the theme of his co-panelists that sharing infrastructure investments benefits the rural Services provider and rural electric’s shared memberships.  Another theme discussed, more fully among ourselves, was that significant CLEC opportunities remain in areas adjacent to the rural Services providers’ service territories largely because the major ILECs, to date, have declined to make substantial investments in network upgrades in these predominantly rural areas.

Moderator Brian Partridge of the Yankee Group and Abe Levine of Vistracks (an M2M application services provider) and I spoke on M2M service opportunities.  Brian stressed the success of MVNOs (as opposed to the facilities-based wireless carriers) in the U.S. in rolling out M2M services.  Abe emphasized the value of selling an M2M end-to-end service (such as asset management/tracking) rather than simple wireless connectivity, emphasizing the widely shared view that there is no real money in selling kilobytes per month.

Brian provided the macro view of M2M in the United States and Abe set out the business case for offering end to end M2M applications, as opposed to simply reselling kilobytes of data.  The author echoed several points, noting that with the exception of VisTracks and maybe one or two other entities, there is limited availability of end-to-end M2M applications that rural carriers can deliver to their customers.

Again, kudos to NTCA on a great conference.