The advent of private 5G means Wi-Fi is no longer the only game in town when it comes to keeping mission-critical enterprise applications wirelessly connected. Celona Inc., winner of TechTarget's Network Innovation Award, recently launched a cellular wireless platform that lets IT pros provision and manage private enterprise 5G much like they do Wi-Fi. Celona 5G technology operates on Citizens Broadband Radio Service spectrum, which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released for commercial use in early 2020.
SearchNetworking spoke to Rajeev Shah, CEO and co-founder of Celona, based in Cupertino, Calif., to learn more about the Celona 5G platform and how the technology aims to change the way enterprises do business.
Editor's note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What problem does Celona 5G technology address?
Rajeev Shah: Almost all communication now happens on wireless, yet most of us still do not expect wireless networks to be as reliable or predictable as wired networks. We have gotten used to making certain compromises. But the enterprise space has a growing onslaught of applications that cannot live without highly predictable wireless connectivity. We feel the only way to meet that need is to allow businesses to consume cellular like they do Wi-Fi or SD-WAN [software-defined WAN]. That has never really been possible before because cellular networking has been restricted to operators, so we wanted to build a new model.
We had a big break when the FCC introduced something innovative called Citizens Broadband Radio Service, or CBRS, in early 2020. CBRS lets the enterprise access spectrum directly rather than having to go through operators, which really changed what was doable.
Rajeev ShahCEO, Celona Technologies
The challenge was that the rest of the cellular market still aligned with the legacy model -- with the objective of building big, nationwide operator networks -- and didn't fit into the enterprise IT construct. So, we said, 'If we can take the best of cloud-native networking software and infuse AI into the operational model, then can we make this extremely sophisticated cellular technologies toolkit that the enterprise can access directly.' That's our mission: We want to solve the challenge of providing predictable wireless once and for all.
Do you anticipate 5G will 'kill' Wi-Fi?
Shah: I think the debate of Wi-Fi vs. 5G is misplaced -- most customers we speak to see value in both technologies working well together. What is clear is the demand for wireless capacity in businesses continues to grow at an astronomical pace. I think Wi-Fi will continue to serve user-facing applications on things like laptops for the foreseeable future. But new applications that truly require ultra-reliable connectivity -- especially in tough radio frequency environments, like hospitals, warehouses, manufacturing plants, oil and gas fields, shipyards, large university campuses and smart cities -- are going to require something more. We believe that 'something more' is 5G because the technology has been designed with those connectivity needs in mind. If we do this right, I think the combination of Celona 5G and Wi-Fi technology will be great for the enterprise; it's not a question of 'either/or.' What I think will suffer are wires.
And how does the Celona 5G platform work?
Shah: The way we have designed it is unique in the cellular world. Our basic approach was to make private 5G look a lot like enterprise Wi-Fi since our audience knows how to deploy Wi-Fi networks really well. It has access points, both indoor and outdoor, with a deployment model similar to the latest and greatest enterprise Wi-Fi APs [access points] -- plug and play, with no config needed. You just use your existing switches, cabling, etc.
Then, Celona's cloud-based platform orchestrates the entire network. Administrators get a simple cloud console that allows them to set the policies they want, and because we have cellular in our toolkit, we can use AI to create a truly automated network. No longer is the administrator worrying about configuring radios, operating systems and so on. Instead, they can now create a microslice -- that's a term we use for a network service layer -- and set the requirement.
For example, a customer might have three microslices: one for their video cameras, another for voice communications and a third for their warehouse's autonomous vehicles that roam around the floor. Each microslice is defined by a specific service-level agreement [SLA] based on what the application needs. From there, the software and AI take over and manage the network to deliver that SLA. By combining AI and IoT, we can create a truly automated network, which our customers are now deploying at scale.
Speaking of AI, who owns the data that these networks generate?
Shah: The data belongs completely to the enterprise. They even have the option of terminating it, so it never leaves the premises. Our models use highly abstracted metadata to learn more about what each application does to the network but never the actual data. And the customer can control how much access they give us.
What kind of customers is Celona 5G technology attracting so far?
Shah: Generally, we're seeing interest from large enterprises with growing automation requirements. The need for predictable wireless spans industries: manufacturing and distribution, shipping, retail, transportation, healthcare, higher education, smart cities -- these verticals all have growing IoT and automation needs. We're also seeing a lot of demand around video use cases and from organizations with large, outdoor venues or spaces. We also expect the typical enterprise office building will increasingly need a different network than the one that its tenants use for IoT applications.
This is a young market, but one that's growing at a pretty astronomical pace. Just six months out from when the spectrum became available, Celona is already close to 100 deployments. It speaks to the pent-up demand for predictable wireless.