Supply-chain companies have a unique set of requirements when it comes to wireless connectivity. These organizations are operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They also rely heavily on wireless connectivity both indoors and outdoors, two environments that present separate challenges for different types of wireless technologies.
For the last decade or more, “wireless” in supply chain meant two things: Wi-Fi or a public cellular network. Those were simply the only two options available to any business.
That circumstance has changed. With a recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission to make the citizens’ broadband radio service (CBRS) spectrum available for use by businesses, supply-chain firms now have a third option for achieving predictable mobility that can serve multiple needs on critical infrastructure: process automation through the use of automated guided vehicles (AGVs), inventory management via rugged tablets that can also be vehicle mounted, and voice communications with push-to-talk handsets. This new option is called a private mobile network, and is poised to change how supply-chain firms look at wireless networks in their environments.
A private mobile network is very similar to the public cellular network that most of us use every day with our smartphones and tablets. It relies on technologies like LTE and, soon, 5G as the wireless protocols for connectivity. However, the networks themselves aren’t owned and operated by wireless service providers such as Verizon or AT&T. A private mobile network is an LTE or 5G network that is owned and operated by a single organization, and geographically bound by that company’s property, be it a railyard, warehouse, parking lot, or campus. In the U.S., these networks use the CBRS spectrum band between 3.55-3.7Ghz and can be deployed by enterprises to set up their very own LTE or 5G network. Yet it’s managed as easily as the Wi-Fi networks that these firms almost certainly already operate.
So why add a third wireless option when Wi-Fi already exists? It’s generally agreed that CBRS-based private mobile networks will work together with existing Wi-Fi networks and augment their capabilities. Right now, many Wi-Fi networks in supply-chain companies are already stretched to the breaking point, in terms of their ability to offer measurable service levels for latency and throughput for mission-critical applications running on enterprise-owned devices.
Second, each wireless access point that’s part of a private mobile network operates within a dedicated and interference-free spectrum, under FCC regulations in the U.S. Not only does this significantly reduce ongoing operational and support costs, it makes a private mobile network ideal for applications that need to be up and running at all times.
CBRS-based private mobile networks are also ideal for connectivity across outdoor settings such as transportation yards, warehouse locations, or manufacturing-site parking lots. With the ability to cover 1 million square feet of outdoor space with a single outdoor wireless access point, a private mobile network significantly lowers the amount of outdoor cabling required to support a wireless network infrastructure, thereby reducing a good chunk of your capital expense.
The need for mobility for this industry is real, with supply-chain facilities going through significant changes in layout and product placement across aisles on an hourly basis. With its ability to “hold onto” the signal in challenging environments, a CBRS-capable device can support a new set of applications that require real-time response from the network — for example, leveraging computer vision to automatically and wirelessly identify fleet vehicles as they enter and depart warehouse facilities, for the purposes of inventory tracking and fleet management.
We are working with a major global supply-chain firm that requires connectivity within a large outdoor railyard. Using the public cellular network wasn’t an option, since this organization doesn’t want its sensitive private data traveling across the operator network. By implementing a private mobile network, in this case based on LTE, the firm is planning to blanket the area with reliable wireless connectivity for video applications without breaking the bank.
The rise of private mobile networks are an inevitability for supply-chain firms, but there will likely be many different ways of implementing them, depending on the specific needs of the I.T. department. Some groups will want to have this managed by a third party, like a service provider or channel partner. Others may wish to simply purchase an end-to-end system and install and manage it themselves. Regardless, the opening of the CBRS spectrum in the U.S. —with many variations on the horizon across different countries — has made private mobile networks a real potential asset for supply-chain companies for many years to come.
Mehmet Yavuz is chief technology officer and co-founder of Celona.
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