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Besides enabling users to stay secure and connected as they travel across campus, Cal Poly’s private network allows for dynamic bandwidth customization, ensuring availability at peak times and scaling back at others.
Tests of private 5G networks on the California Polytechnic State University campus are revealing opportunities for better connectivity, reliability and cybersecurity that cities could benefit from, too.
Concerned about overtaxing the university’s Wi-Fi, Bill Britton, Cal Poly’s vice president for information technology services and chief information officer, started using private 5G about a year ago to determine whether it could help network managers avoid bandwidth shaping—or taking bandwidth from one application and giving it to another to support data transfer.
“We’re increasing on a continuum, exponentially, the amount of data going across our bandwidth,” Britton said, noting that Cal Poly is a “mini city,” with almost 22,000 students and several thousand faculty and staff members.
He pointed to a project where smart strawberry-picking machines can identify ripe fruit and predict when other berries will be ready. Those devices alone transmit a tremendous amount of data over Wi-Fi to the researchers, Britton said.
And there’s the student whose Xbox gaming console used 1.7 terabytes in a single day because it was supporting 1,500 other entities on the university network. “Panic sets in, because what happens if somebody decides to do that on the day we’re all trying to log in and register for class,” Britton said. “That could bring us to our knees,” he said. “With all of this stuff that we’re loading on the Wi-Fi, it reaches a limit. ‘It says, ‘I can’t carry anymore.’”
One option is to invest in the development of fiber connectivity, “but you can’t really take fiber into the field and can’t get up to the machine and have it drag the fiber across the strawberries,” he said. And enhancing the Wi-Fi is an expensive and likely temporary fix.
Enter private 5G. It differs from Wi-Fi in that the latter is intended for self-contained areas, whereas a private network extends across the area where it’s deployed, enabling users to move seamlessly without losing connectivity. Private networks also allow for dynamic bandwidth customization, ensuring availability at peak times and scaling back at others.
Cal Poly’s private network is supported by a partnership between Amazon Web Services and Federated Wireless. Sold as a managed service through AWS Marketplace, the Federated Wireless Private Wireless Network for Your Enterprise is a turnkey solution. Because Federated Wireless is a Spectrum Access System provider, it deploys sensors and software to support access to the shared citizens broadband radio service (CBRS) spectrum.
To better understand private 5G, Cal Poly stood up an innovation lab four months ago. “It is much like creating a cloud-based network,” Britton said. “Whereas in the regular world of Wi-Fi and Ethernet, you build platforms and shove all that data across, in the world of 5G, you can create edge computing.
Take the strawberry-picking device, for example. It could be configured to only send parcels through an app supporting it on the private 5G network.
One of the initial pilot projects using private 5G is the creation of a digital twin. “They’re utilizing the sensors across the network, collecting data about buildings and foot traffic,” Britton said. “It goes into a digital twin, and it’s protected. We’re looking at a whole new way to look at how we support the university.”
Other use cases he cited include Cal Poly’s learning management system, control networks and PCI. “I don’t have to put it on the open, unclassified Wi-Fi anymore, Britton said. “I can put it on a closed, encrypted, restricted network.”
This is not unlike the needs of a city, said Sameer Vuyyuru, head of worldwide business development for communication service providers at AWS. Waste-management workers, first responders and traffic monitoring all require different applications that won’t get bumped or dropped when connectivity fails.
“The role that AWS plays is not just providing the connectivity for private networks, but providing the 100,000-plus partners that actively run on AWS today in all of these different use cases, so that those applications can then be deployed on demand for that particular use case at that particular time, and then scaled down or scaled up on demand,” Vuyyuru said.
Some government entities have already begun using private 5G. The Utah Inland Port Authority announced in 2021 that it was working with QuayChain Technologies to build and operate the world’s first private LTE and 5G network dedicated to the supply chain. Also in 2021, Tucson, Arizona, and Geoverse deployed private networks citywide to reduce the digital divide in public education, and last year, Las Vegas and NTT deployed the country’s most extensive private 5G network.
Vuyyuru recommends that cities start small, using private 5G at one or two sites. That also jibes with AWS’ pay-as-you-go pricing model that it has implemented with telco partners.
Cities could see cost savings, too, he added. It’s common for cities to use, on average, 10 service providers—one for fiber, another for Wi-Fi, etc., but “private wireless gives you the ability to consolidate all of that into a single supplier,” he said.
Cal Poly said it’s too soon to say how much money private 5G might save the university, but what’s different about other instantiations is the school owns it. “I’m not paying a telecom provider to buy bandwidth from them,” Britton said. “It’s in a CBRS environment, so we’re paying for the sustainment of the system. And then the apps, we can build the apps if we wanted. And we control the provisioning of the system. … This is a humongous game-changer for how we can do business on campus.”
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.