Public-private partnerships maximize 5G value through whole-network approach

By Alda Licis, Chief Operating Officer, Tilson Infrastructure

Alda Licis is a member of WIA’s Innovation & Technology Council. Learn more about ITC here.

Now that the buildout of 5G coverage is well under way, there are many ideas about how to monetize these networks and unlock the value of 5G technology. One way Tilson Infrastructure is doing this is through public-private partnerships that make 5G more affordable through shared infrastructure that maximizes use of assets and improves returns on investment.

The wireless industry is familiar with the concept of sharing. For decades, mobile operators have colocated antennas on towers, but can sharing go beyond colocation to include small cell poles, fiber and data centers? What if we started to think about telecommunications systems as a whole rather than its individual parts?  Tilson and Plenary Americas have partnered under the Plenary Broadband Infrastructure (PBI) brand to bring a sustainable and well-resourced approach to this concept in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, where shared fiber is connecting poles, macro towers and AI driven data centers.

In Pennsylvania, PBI assumed operations and maintenance responsibility of a publicly-owned 467-mile fiber optic network along the Pennsylvania Turnpike from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. While the network was designed to provide connectivity for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission’s administrative and maintenance buildings, tolling systems and Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), PBI is working to commercialize it to support revenue-generating applications. Potential customers include hyperscalers, large enterprises, internet and telecom providers, cable multiple-system operators, municipalities and educational institutions.

Similarly, PBI has partnered with the North Carolina Department of Transportation to operate, maintain and commercialize its fiber infrastructure along 580 miles of 1-95, US-70 and US-74.

States like Pennsylvania and North Carolina have deployed conduit and fiber primarily to support ITS but don’t necessarily have the budget to operate and manage the networks. When PBI leases excess fiber capacity to a commercial entity, it shares the proceeds with the state. The state can then use those proceeds to pay PBI for operations and maintenance, as well as replacing cameras, monitors and sensors, fiber locates, and repairing any potential fiber cuts.

Meanwhile, the excess fiber can be used to reach underserved markets and increase the value of 5G networks through short-term leases or long-term Indefeasible Right of Use agreements (IRUs) with carriers, enterprises, hyperscalers and internet service providers for a variety of applications. In Pennsylvania and North Carolina, PBI also has the exclusive right to develop vertical infrastructure in the form of poles and towers connected to those fiber networks.

Microtrenching on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Source: Tilson

In the United States, very little fiber has been deployed along interstates.  For any single entity to build and maintain fiber routes like these on their own would be expensive and difficult. By creating cost-sharing and risk-sharing public-private partnerships, fiber can be deployed in diverse locations, and there is a unique opportunity to build use cases that provide a variety of mutual benefits. For hyperscalers developing new data centers that host artificial intelligence capabilities and require high-power availability, these interstate fiber routes are the straightest and therefore lowest latency and most protected options.

Current wireless use cases include mobile operators who have an interest in leveraging fiber along interstates for macro towers when it helps them fill a coverage or capacity need. With fiber already available for them connect to, at least one barrier to deploying a tower is eliminated.

Micro ducts in the hand holes. Source: Tilson

Potential future use cases include autonomous vehicles, dedicated lanes for trucks and more. Cavnue, for example, is developing a connected and automated vehicle (CAV) corridor in Michigan in coordination with the Michigan Department of Transportation. The network includes optical sensors mounted on poles every 200 meters paired with radar equipment and low-latency compute-at-the-edge applications. In addition to autonomous vehicle operation, the network could provide real-time road information to drivers about weather impacts and traffic jams.

Another use case where these networks could prove valuable is with drones used for public-safety and monitoring applications.

When I think about 5G monetization, I think about leveraging a variety of telecommunications assets that play together. We currently own and operate poles to support small cells, macro towers and operate fiber along transportation corridors in public-private partnerships. By looking at how these assets can play together, 5G can become more affordable. Infrastructure must be shared to maximize investment and the utilization of those assets.