Enterprise Cellular workshop notes

I recently had the honour and pleasure of attending a public workshop in London run by analysts Caroline Gabriel of Rethink Research and Dean Bubley of Disruptive Analysis. The subject was “Enterprise Cellular, Spectrum-Sharing, Neutral Hosts & new 4G/5G models”.

This is not my area of expertise, and I enjoyed being the numpty newbie in the corner with much to learn. I captured a limited set of notes that I have written up to share. This doesn’t do justice to the richness of their content or depth of insight, and any errors and misconceptions are all my own.

The mobile equipment industry has historically been structured to serve only one vertical: telecoms itself. The reason has been the mobile network operator (MNO) control over spectrum, via an industry cartel. This is now changing as enterprises are gaining access to spectrum via new sharing models.

The mobile operator of the 1990s was a response to a very immature industry whereby all the components were new. The requirement to align everything into a working service meant it made sense to being a large number of functions together in a single integrated organisation.

This is now being unbundled in a variety of ways so that different kinds of non-telco enterprise user can pick an “a-la carte” selection of capabilities from a variety of sources. Identity, billing, device management, security and many other functions can be separately bought and brought together.

There are many reasons for enterprises to adopt their own cellular networks to solve their specific industry needs for performance, cost, coverage, control or risk. This is not a new phenomenon, either. For instance, the railway industry has long had its own variant of GSM.

However, making it into a generic capability is not simple. It requires managing the integration risk of components being brought together in new ways. There are many constraints, not only of spectrum sharing and compatible devices, but also of the “enterprise readiness” of the operational and back office systems.

As enterprises move to the cloud, and also adopt IoT-based automation, new demand is arising for mobile access. Airports, hospitals, oil rigs, factories, and more: all have their own connectivity needs, many of which are poorly served by alternatives like WiFi. This is particularly true as industries go “smart” and eliminate waste to improve flow of value.

The core functions of a mobile operator are to predict demand, contract the construction of supply the right places, integrate the components to “light up” that supply, and then share the supply with the demand that exists. These same functions apply to the enterprise cellular market, but may be expressed differently depending on context.

For instance, an airport might have many diverse stakeholder groups. You have roaming passengers at “golden points of entry”, police, security personnel, fire safety, airline personnel, suppliers, retailers, customs, telemetry, and more. These may have different safety cases, resilience needs, analytics models, security policies, and more. Hence the nature of the supply you build is different to when serving general public Internet access.

The unfamiliar nature of the market opens up opportunities for new kinds of providers to service these needs. They will manage the shared platforms on which many users might depend, and contract the supply in ways that are suitable for the vertical domain.

My conclusion was that these enterprise cellular providers may well eventually end up “eating” the mainstream MNOs. Their richer capability at managing the diversity of enterprise needs will eventually create a platform that has more flexibility and better integration with cloud services. They will have to manage control over the resources, fitness-for-purpose, and deliver a safety case.

If this happens, then the centre of profit may shift away from the spectrum cartel towards those who build and control that platforms that dynamically share the spectrum resources.

If you have any questions or wish to engage help to explore this space, feel free to get in touch and I will gladly pass you on to Dean and/or Caroline as necessary.

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