John Deere last week shared its plans for the nearly half a million dollars’ worth of public airwaves it purchased in the recent Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) auction. The agricultural giant purchased a spectrum license in five counties — four in Iowa and one in Illinois. The license allows it to use the airwaves to deploy a highly local 5G network that John Deere will leverage for its manufacturing plants in those counties.
According to Dan Leibfried, director automation and autonomy in John Deere’s Intelligent Solutions Group, right now the factories have a mix of Ethernet cables and Wi-Fi access points, but in the next 12 months, he hopes to experiment with creating a wireless network for manufacturing equipment that will enable the plants to reconfigure and adapt their operations more quickly. This future of highly configurable manufacturing plants is one of the potential benefits I’ve written about before when discussing 5G.
Leibfried didn’t have a lot of details about John Deere’s plans because, when we spoke, the company had just purchased the spectrum and was still setting up its process for using it. John Deere was actually one of the few individual companies outside of the traditional telco and ISP space that bought spectrum in this auction. Several utilities did so in their respective geographical areas, as did Chevron. But for the most part, the county-wide spectrum allocations went to network operators.
I was mildly surprised by this. I actually thought we’d see companies buy the spectrum to build out their own networks as opposed to contracting with AT&T or Verizon to provide service. However, the CTO of Federated Wireless, Kurt Schaubach, thinks such buildouts are unlikely given how the auction went. Federated Wireless is offering a network-as-a-service for businesses that want to use the CBRS spectrum for wireless network deployments.
John Deere purchased dedicated spectrum in the CBRS band, but there is also a large swath of spectrum that’s for general use as long as the companies using it share the airwaves with the Department of Defense (with the DOD getting priority). Schaubach expects many of the companies interested in deploying 5G networks in factories, stadiums, and other commercial buildings and public areas to use what’s called GAA spectrum. There are 150 megahertz of spectrum between 3550 MHz and 3700 MHz that companies can use as long as they don’t interfere with the military or the Priority Access License holders such as Deere.
They will also have to contract with a company like Federated, which manages the database that tracks which organization is using the spectrum at any given time. And they will need to work with companies such as Ericsson, Qualcomm, and Nokia, which are building the network equipment used to create the networks.
The benefits, though, are potentially profound. Having access to more spectrum means more information can pass over the air as opposed to being transmitted over wires. And as anyone who has ever been stuck trying to charge their phone in an airport can tell you, wires limit flexibility. With more spectrum in both licensed and unlicensed bands, we’ll see more capacity along with more innovation.
All of this will make the internet of things richer and more productive.