We attended the CBRS Alliance event in Washington DC today, and by our rough estimate, about 350-400 people were in attendance representing groups such as regulators, legislators, lawyers, technology vendors, property owners, service providers, investors, media and analysts. We were impressed with the widespread interest in the new shared spectrum technology and services running in the 3.5 GHz band that is now called “OnGo.” We have researched CBRS for many years and found several acronyms and CBRS-specific terminology to be blossoming. We found several themes at the CBRS Alliance event and a follow-on event at Federated Wireless, a SAS service provider, of special note: a) the OnGo experience will serve as a mold for regulators, operators and other interested parties not just in the US, but also the rest of the world, b) Tier 1 operators and WISPs appear focused on Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) deployments in CBRS spectrum, at least initially, c) many presenters focused on the “OnGo backhaul to gateways” use-case, at least as an initial opportunity, d) interested parties have a concern that PAL licenses may become very expensive when the auctions occur, and e) there were a very large number of devices supporting OnGo at this event.
Acronym soup. The CBRS Alliance did its best to explain the various acronyms and how the various players work together. It would take at least six pages to cover just the top-level details. The idea here is that the 150 MHz of spectrum in the 3.5 GHz range was previously used exclusively by the US Department of Defense and is now going to be shared using a three-tier process, where the military (the incumbent) will have use of it when it needs, then private license holders will get next dibs (PAL), followed by general users (GAA). Starting today, GAA users will begin use of the spectrum in the Initial Commercial Deployment (ICD) that was announced today, starting at 9 AM Eastern. A group of service providers called Spectrum Access System (SAS) providers have been authorized to install radios on the US coastline that sense when the military is using the spectrum and send channel-use information to equipment that is operating in the CBRS spectrum. These SAS providers will, therefore, coordinate the frequencies between incumbent, PAL, and GAA users.
Our view on why OnGo and “Shared spectrum” matters. We expect that by sharing spectrum amongst various parties, more traffic can move across a smaller range of frequency than by using the more common method of auctioning off frequency bands to be used exclusively by one entity. We estimate that shared frequency will carry ten-times more traffic than frequency bands licensed for the exclusive use of single entities. Thus, it is for the greater good that this OnGo / CBRS experience go the distance and allow a public demonstration of whether multi-tiered shared spectrum can succeed or not. Already, we have the experience of shared spectrum in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands used by WiFi – there is no doubt this has been successful; in fact, most public estimates show about 80% of smartphone traffic is carried by WiFi rather than cellular systems, all of which as of yesterday was carried on licensed spectrum. At the CBRS Alliance event, guest speaker, US FCC Commissioner Michael P. O’Reilly said that based on the success of OnGo, he expects similar models could be applied to additional spectrum (and he implied this might the sequential order of launch): C-band (3.7-4.2 GHz), 3.45-3.55 GHz, 3.1-3.45 GHz and 7 GHz (which we understand is meant to be the same thing as what is being discussed at 6 GHz by the WiFi community).
FWA opportunity is front and center. Charter and AT&T focused their comments on their plans to deploy fixed broadband systems. AT&T shared some impressive statistics about the performance of recent trials using Massive MIMO cell sites using distributed RAN over CBRS spectrum, which is connected to indoor baseband over fiber optics to the radio sites and then connects wirelessly to customer premises equipment mounted at the roofline: it said it achieved 140x12 Mbps at slightly over one mile over line of sight using 20 Mhz channels. Charter discussed it had deployed its first commercial FWA in Davidson City, NC to rural locations. It also discussed how it uses dual SIM systems to allow customer coverage to Verizon’s cellular network. Charter also discussed private LTE, neutral host, and Industrial IoT use cases. The Wireless Internet Service Provider’s Association (WISPA) President spoke about its members’ enthusiasm for OnGo and explained that 100’s of WISPs used the 3.65 GHz spectrum and expects more will use the 3.5 GHz / CBRS spectrum. Currently, WISPA says WISPS in the US have 6 million customers.
OnGo as a backhaul. We detected a theme that seems durable: CBRS spectrum can be used by enterprises with far-flung operations to save costs by reducing the installation of wired / optical cables and associated infrastructure. There was an impressive list of vendors who had equipment at the show, a number of which were gateway devices that made connections between CBRS and other well-known protocols such as Ethernet and WiFi, to name a couple. While OnGo/CBRS support is not as widespread on devices today, IoT devices supporting other wired and wireless systems certainly are, the list of which includes WiFi, Zigbee, Bluetooth, Ethernet and more. We were taken by how compelling some presenters made a case for using CBRS simply assuming a reduction in new cabling to enable new systems such as kiosks, surveillance, digital signage, farming, and so on. Many of these examples would increase the deployment of existing protocols like WiFi, Zigbee, Bluetooth, and Ethernet, instead of reducing their demand. The idea that OnGo/CBRS competes with existing systems may be incorrect.
PAL auctions. Commissioner O’Reilly said PAL auctions are scheduled for June 25, 2020. In our formal and informal interviews, we understand there is a growing concern that CBRS spectrum auctions could be aggressively pursued not only by existing Tier 1 mobile operators but also by other players, not least of which could include MSOs and maybe even “Big Tech” companies. Since the 3.5 GHz spectrum is where many countries besides the US have begun deploying 5G services, making equipment in these frequency bands commonplace, there is ample reason to want to use this spectrum in the US. Bidders may raise the price high enough that enterprises will choose not to compete, and won’t view the CBRS spectrum as attractive as they had hoped. In this case, PAL would look quite a bit more like a typical licensed spectrum, similar to other auctions.
OnGo devices abound. At the show, the following vendors had devices on show (see pictures): Sercomm, MultiTech, Sierra WIreless, Zyxel, Encore, Cradlepoint, AMIT Wireless, Commscope / Ruckus, Accelleran, Bai Cells, Cambium, Samsung, Google, LG Electronics, Sequans, Telit, JMA Wireless, Motorola Solutions, Cisco, BEC Technologies, Ericsson, ip access, BLINQ, Comba Telecom, and Westell.
We attended the Comcast Business analyst event in Philadelphia. We find the Business Services part of Comcast is interesting, and so do customers, because it is growing rapidly. It installs a “new Ethernet every four minutes,” and has “40-45K installs per month.” The company shared with the audience that it is expanding the breadth of its services to grow its potential revenue it can get from each customer, and in many cases is either acquiring or developing this technology itself. We see these development efforts as moving up the technology stack.
To understand Comcast Business, you have to know that it has unique approaches to its different customer segments. The organization addresses customers of different sizes, and it does not use the same terminology as some others do: SMB (<20 employees), Mid-market (20+ employees), Enterprise (Fortune 1000). We think it is more common that small is considered 100 employees and smaller, which would include SMB and Comcast’s Mid-Market, and that mid would be 101 employees or greater. Here are the Comcast Business market views:
More details about customer segments. In addition to attacking three customer size groups with distinct approaches, it also serves two verticals (carriers and government) segments with different strategies and recently acquired Deep Blue (May 2019) that serves WiFi to venues and hospitality verticals. Each served customer type uses different combinations of third-party developed technology and Comcast in-house developed technology. The company has 4,000 people developing in-house technology. As a mix of total systems sold to customers, today, Comcast Business uses a higher mix of in-house developed technology when serving its small and mid-market customers than it does when serving large enterprises. The group that serves Enterprise Solutions serves large enterprises using mostly using third-party technology from vendors like Cisco, Fortinet, and HPE.
On the other hand, the company serves smaller-sized customers using fully or partially in-house developed technology. Comcast Business’s SVP Product Management, Bob Victor, summed up its approach to working with third-party vendors by saying, “We want to totally commoditize hardware.” We assume he means this is a long-term goal because, during the event, the company told us of new hardware and software relationships announced with new vendors.
For small and mid businesses, the company has developed several in-house technology systems that compete with vendor-supplied technology. One such example is its WiFi Pro service, which combines internet connection and WiFi service. In WiFi Pro, which was introduced a couple of years ago to small businesses and is available at up to four Access Points, the company sources WLAN access points from a non-branded access point. Based on our discussions at this conference, we would not rule out that at least some of the in-house developed technology may be supplanted by vendor-supplied technology if there is a compelling reason. However, on multiple occasions, we learned that the direction the Comcast Business is going is to develop in-house technologies and bring these directly to customers, first with smaller customers, and perhaps very long term to large enterprises.
Managed Services. The company delivers both transport/network services and transport bundled with other services; there is a case to be made that Comcast Business’ bundled services could be called Managed Services. However, even Comcast says there is some confusion about using the terminology “Managed Services,” because of customer expectations; some customers see it as a very high level of services, where customers do nothing, while others see it as Comcast Business is “working with” the customer to deliver the service.
Playing to Strengths. On an overall basis, Bill Stemper, who runs Comcast Business, says the company’s strategy is to focus on serving the wireline needs of businesses in the US. He says, “this is where we invest. We expect to focus this way for decades.”
Small Business details. Stemper said that the company would bring “mobile to small business.” It will bring mobile to this segment when “all the systems are squared away, and when sales reps are capable of selling this additional service without slowing down customer purchasing decisions on the existing suite of services.” It is currently offering mobile in selected markets to learn more about selling this new service. We expect mobile to small business to be offered sometime in 2020.
Growth Avenues in Mid-Market. The company made it clear that it believes the mid-market is an enormous growth opportunity. And, starting in 2020 and beyond, the company says, it is putting more investment into it to improve coverage, its focus, and its reach. Today, the company has 800 reps targeting the in mid-market and plays to strengths in certain verticals such as government, education, and healthcare.
Large Enterprise Opportunities. Approaching the Fortune 1000, the company has its most meaningful exposure in finance, healthcare, restaurants, retail, hospitality verticals. The company is finding customers who, according to Comcast, are replacing MPLS service with broadband and getting a 50% cost reduction and an order of magnitude speed improvement. Comcast introduced a leader from a large finance company to the audience, and though we cannot name the customer, the company shared that it had moved initially to use Comcast transport, and is currently doing a proof of concept for voice and Comcast’s ActiveCore SD-WAN service. Comcast reiterated its plans to use Cisco, Fortinet, and HPE at large enterprise (Fortune 1000), though implied it is entering another phase that it internally calls Enterprise 2.0 for its Enterprise Solutions group. In Enterprise 2.0, the company hinted it might develop more in-house technology and further implied its ActiveCore (SD-WAN is one service it offers in ActiveCore) might find a home in some large enterprises. Comcast’s customer endorsed the idea of using white box universal CPE loaded with “best of breed services” instead of buying vendor-supplied routers so it will not have to replace 15,000 routers when it comes to upgrading time or transitioning.
Carrier opportunity. Bill Stemper, who leads Comcast Business explained that, since 2009, it has served carrier Ethernet to the mobile industry and it will pursue 5G opportunistically. Elaborating further, Stemper said it would decide whether we can get leverage on new builds to serve 5G simultaneously with other customer types. So, it sounds like building new plant to serve only 5G backhaul is not in the cards.
Deep Blue WLAN. In May 2019, the company acquired a Troy, NY-based WiFi services company. We understand from the presentations that Deep Blue was growing at least 30%/year for several years before the acquisition and that its revenues may have hit around $40M. The company designs/installs third-party WLAN and associated systems, then operates the networks for a recurring fee mainly in verticals such hospitality and large venues. The wholly-owned subsidiary has developed advanced software and services capabilities that could easily be leveraged across the other parts of Comcast Business, but from what we learned, there has been no cross-fertilization as of yet.
Products. The company is expanding the number of services it can deliver to customers, thereby increasing its possible revenues to each customer. It began offering SD-WAN services three years ago. It plans to expand beyond SD-WAN. In its mid-market customer focus, the company will soon offer security (Advanced Firewall and UTM, for instance), routing, and a bit later on, voice gateway (SBC) and WiFi. For premises-based VNFs, these are run on a universal CPE (uCPE) that today costs about $1,000 to Comcast and it will be launching a $500 uCPE with similar capabilities soon. The company is updating the cable plant that serves business users, where 4 M businesses are passed, towards a “mid split” architecture that allows for greater upstream speeds so that initially 50 Mbps up and down will be possible, and then over time 100/100, 300/300 and longer-term 1 Gbps up and down. The company also uses EPON for more demanding needs and places like multiple dwelling units; it won’t be moving to XG PON (10 Gbps) for the foreseeable future.
The company has a multi-vendor approach with these VNFs. This week, it announced Fortinet UTM/security. We expect the company could announce other security, routing and perhaps longer-term, other SD-WAN vendor options. We think the company will stick with a single WiFi cloud controller for at least the next year or so, but indicated it could introduce at least one more vendor’s technology afterward. The $500 uCPE device is capable of 1 Gbps SD-WAN throughput, as well as advanced firewall at 1 Gbps and has UTM at 600 Mbps. These are impressive throughput numbers, we think, especially because similar throughput capabilities are available on proprietary boxes from vendors that cost much more.
Additionally, the product called CBR2, a new version of its Comcast business router, will be coming soon. Both the original CBR and CBR2 have WLAN as a built-in feature. But, neither the CBR nor the CBR2 has sufficient WLAN coverage capabilities to satisfy a mid-sized business, so Comcast thinks its soon-to-be-launched WLAN plans to mid-sized businesses allow it to serve more customers. One such new target from these added WLAN capabilities will be the E-Rate program, which is a partial funding mechanism for K-12 schools overseen by the US FCC, is one such target.
Comcast emphasized that it has spent significant time and resources developing software capabilities that allow it to orchestrate VNFs, to remotely administer customer networks, and to allow multiple VNFs from different vendors, or to allow VNFs that are developedin-house by its customers.
We attended the Nokia analyst meeting for its Fixed Access business, where the company explained its priorities for the upcoming year. these include: (a) an expansion to its In-Home WiFi focus, (b) an aggressive push to move all but physical layer functions into the Cloud, and (c) the launch of fixed broadband wireless. Last year's priorities included a push into the Cable broadband market (through the acquisition of Gainspeed) and Internet of Things (IoT). The business leaders seem to be focused on what we'd consider to be the current trends in broadband, and Nokia is taking advantage of the competitive environment as the broadband market is consolidating around a shrinking number of players.
In-Home WiFi. While some of the the company's Passive Optical Network (PON) Optical Network Terminals (ONTs) are currently shipping with Wi-Fi capabilities, it represents a growing trend among operators to offer a full function gateway. The company plans to enhance its In-Home WiFi capabilities to entice its Service Provider customers to purchase these slightly more expensive devices. The company ships something on the order of 3 million ONTs each quarter, generally on par with the number of in-home WiFi devices sold by one of the leaders of in-home WiFi, Netgear. There has been a long-running trend whereby cable modems and DSL modems have incorporated WiFi, which has reduced the market opportunity for stand-alone WiFi routers, mainly in North America and European markets (where cable and DSL are popular). However, where PON is popular, like in Asian countries (China included), PON modems have generally not incorporated WiFi until recently and WiFi capable ONTs represent a small fraction of all ONTs that ship. Nokia plans to introduce a solution that extends and enhances WiFi beyond the gateway at some point - we've seen WiFi Extenders and now WiFi mesh experience significant growth in recent years. What Nokia may be able to bring to the table, though, is WiFi extending products with deeper integration to the Service Provider operations. This is a capability that will likely be embraced by operators in order to reduce the number of customer service calls to the operators themselves. We have seen vendors like Arris make similar pronouncements of enhancing their WiFi strategies to include devices such as Extenders (but mainly for cable and DSL), so Nokia is not alone in being a broadband modem vendor recognizing the 'whole home' trend. From a consumer WiFi perspective, Nokia's move to enhance its WiFi capabilities will put most pressure on standalone WiFi vendors that sell to Asian countries - these include D-Link, TP-Link, Buffalo, and Zyxel.
Broadband to the Cloud. The Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) trend has now hit full steam, with nearly all mobile operator RFPs requiring vendors to offer software-based functions such as EPC, routing, IMS and other functions that can be run in so-called "Telco Clouds." The broadband group at Nokia is expected over time to deliver on a portfolio that, where possible, will be running on these server-based environments. We, similar to Nokia's expectation, expect that most fixed broadband "NFV" systems will be run in separate "clouds" from the mobile "clouds" for the next few years.
Fixed Wireless. We've all heard a lot about fixed wireless broadband trials at telcos in recent months. Yesterday, for instance, AT&T announced an expansion of its trials. Nokia will deliver on Fixed Wireless through its Fixed Broadband business group, an organizational acknowledgment that this is quite different from mobile wireless and will more likely be used to augment wired broadband strategies in difficult-to-reach locations. Generally, Nokia's view is that fixed wireless is relatively more expensive than many wired broadband systems - we share this view. It is hard not to be somewhat skeptical about fixed broadband wireless given the failed attempts to bring it to market going back as far as the early 1990's (AT&T's Project Angel), and then MMDS and LMDS efforts in the early 2000's, and of course WiMAX (more recently). Nonetheless, Nokia is smartly positioning its plans to support fixed wireless as a way to augment wired broadband. And, we know that fixed wireless works - Ubiquiti Networks has shipped tens of millions of fixed broadband wireless links to its customer base of Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs).
Ericsson and Cisco representatives provided an upbeat presentation about the corporate partnership, offered some customer success metrics and discussed some new initiatives. The teams held back from providing concrete measures of progress such as revenues. Our judgement is that since each is continuing to make joint offerings, the relationship is moving ahead.
Customer engagement progress was characterized at 100+ deals and 300+ engagements.
It is interesting to figure out what each of the two parties deliver to customers. The way the two companies characterize what each is good at and what each delivers to customers is quite similar to the way it was characterized at the previous year's MWC 2016 presentation - with one possible exception: Each of the spokespersons said that customers are using the Ericsson wireless packet core (Cisco also sells wireless packet core).
Roles and Responsibilities. Generally, the teams still see the roles and responsibilities split up as follows:
Given how strategic the NFV landscape is for the future of the telecom industry, we were interested in each company's participation in NFV Orchestration. The partners say the way they split up the orchestration between each other would typically be as follows: Cisco's NSO is used typically in managing the network and resources (Cisco claims it wins big here). Ericsson's transport-oriented NFV is typically used. And then Ericsson's orchestration system manages both Cisco's and Ericsson's lower level management systems.
Some wins discussed:
As we explained earlier, the partners discussed new three initiatives discussed for the future: