By Dr. Mehmet Yavuz, CTO and co-founder, Celona.
Up until the last few years, educational institutions had very little need for predictable and highly reliable wireless connectivity, and it had almost no need for secure outdoor wireless connectivity. If expensive and costly wired infrastructure didn’t reach, those areas simply went unserved.
Today, there are myriad reasons to supply outdoor wireless connectivity, not least of which would be the current pandemic, but also to supply connectivity beyond students to include everything from Wi-Fi backhaul on campus shuttles to video surveillance and even to connect parking meters. Many IT departments attempted to make this work with expansive dense Wi-Fi networks, but these networks are incapable of delivering the reliability and security required by some if not all of the critical applications.
This is now changing with the availability of unlicensed wireless spectrum via the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum recently approved by the FCC. Now, campus IT departments finally have a viable solution to reduce costs while addressing constantly changing connectivity and application performance requirements. CBRS-based private mobile networks can now provide educational institutions with the unprecedented coverage and reliability that cellular wireless is designed to deliver.
A new type of connectivity for new applications
For the last two decades, “wireless” in an education IT setting meant either the deployment of Wi-Fi infrastructure or the use of public cellular network services operated by large public carriers. The innovation and introduction of private mobile networks changes everything.
These networks are similar to the public LTE and 5G networks in their form and function but are deployed just like a Wi-Fi network that a school owns and operates itself. But unlike Wi-Fi, these networks use the unlicensed CBRS spectrum band between 3.55-3.7Ghz and can be used by educational institutions of all kinds to give them their very own LTE or 5G network, with full control and data ownership. This is something that, until now, hasn’t been possible.
Just as Wi-Fi is considered an essential technology that should be owned by the education IT department, so too will private mobile networks. The applications in which this technology is well-suited are simply the kind that education IT will consider mission-critical and want total and complete control over.
Use cases for private mobile networks in education
When it comes to network architecture, educational institutions have a unique set of needs that set them apart from standard enterprises. This translates into massive outdoor areas, 24/7 operation of computer labs and research facilities, a high reliance on voice communications between staff members, and municipal-like requirements for parking lots, emergency response systems and video surveillance.
These use cases combine to create distinct challenges for predictable performance for wireless networking – especially when the student Wi-Fi is the most important application for many and cannot be interrupted at any time.
Given the coverage patterns of a single CBRS LTE access point that can supply up to million square feet of wireless coverage, IT departments in higher ed can extend critical infrastructure connectivity across the campus without breaking the bank by trenching campus parking lots and other property to lay more fiber. Some of the outdoor use cases that universities are evaluating include public safety cameras, emergency phones, Internet backhaul for shuttle buses, outdoor lighting controls and monitoring solutions. Indoor use cases include everything from lighting controls and door locks to vending machines and panic buttons.
A major consideration for these IT departments is the use of private cellular to cost-effectively extend reach to areas where Wi-Fi meshing is simply not practical from a performance, cost or reliability perspective. This has been a real challenge for universities looking to provide pervasive wireless coverage and connectivity to large public venues on campus.
Another key consideration is the improved security that cellular can deliver as it promises a clean spectrum, device level authorization and always-on centralized encryption for client devices. In an era of concern about intellectual espionage, this is a critical element for research institutions that wish to keep their IP safe from prying eyes.
Private networks are here, providing value today
Ultimately, to maintain technological relevance, educational IT departments planning must include deployment of private 5G as a strategic asset for the organization since it now offers a robust solution for multiple near-term education IT needs.
In an era of vaporware and over-hyped functionality, private networks for 5G deliver real performance with practical value today. If you’re an education IT leader reading this now, I can also tell you that I am actively engaged with many of your colleagues as they are carefully evaluating different solutions from the multiple vendors in this market segment. What’s clear is that for education IT, private mobile networks are going to be a critical option for campus connectivity going forward.