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Discussing the topic of evolving shared digital infrastructure was Victoria Lamberth, Co-Founder and Chief Revenue Officer of ZenFi, and Colby Synesael, Analyst at Cowen Group. Since 2014, ZenFi Networks has been a provider of fiber optic networks, wireless lighting, and network edge colocation. In the New York and New Jersey metro areas that ZenFi services, the company noticed that wireless companies were consuming the fiber networks and fiber providers had no understanding of how their architecture was being created. Thus, ZenFi’s initial goal was to enable 4G and the densification on the network. 

Rather than the traditional vertical tower models, ZenFi saw an opportunity in creating a horizontal network of neighborhood networks to make fiber connectivity more accessible. Seven years ago, convergence had not amassed the buy-in it has today largely due to a need that hadn’t yet emerged. As ZenFi evolved, the company went from solving fronthaul fiber architecture and renting out space in their data centers to developing colocation facilities as carriers wanted to be closer to their baseband processing and helping communities develop new wireless infrastructure. 

The real advantage now is that the infrastructure has been built, complete with high carrier capacity, redundant power, fiber connectivity, and wireless sites to support carriers and their proprietary spectrum. The opportunity comes from the FCC who has begun to auction more spectrum so that it is available to smaller providers, outside of traditional carriers. Small providers, like ZenFi, can use this spectrum to create neutral networks and offer turnkey solutions to virtual network operators, offloading to traditional carriers, and developing private networking applications for municipalities.

With the physical infrastructure in place, the next frontier is the sharing of spectrum, which will enable virtual infrastructure. While ZenFi is still developing its product offering in this particular space, Victoria notes the interesting applications shared spectrum is being used for. CBRS private networks are being used by municipalities and school districts to connect teachers and students in rural and suburban areas, providing opportunities and developing the underlying network infrastructure. The company is also seeing municipalities get more creative in regards to the benefits of expanding broadband infrastructure and how they can incentivize networking providers to build networks in traditionally underserved locations.

Even today, there are virtual network operators that purchase roaming agreements and mobile offering operators that do offload on WiFi networks, what will change in the future is the quality of services offered on a CBRS or WiFi 6 network. There are still many aspects that need to be defined, like how much access do you get and how does sharing spectrum work. ZenFi has seen significant opportunities for companies to invest in this area. They predict that the first entry will be from neutral hosts that have the assets like fiber and power in place. Where this infrastructure was built to support proprietary and mobile networks, it now supports augmentation and access to spectrum. The FCC is creating an ecosystem of competition by enabling smaller providers when spectrum is made available. 

Sharing assets also becomes logical and helps make better use of capital and makes efficient use of space in areas where physical resources are limited. As data driven on the network continues to expand, draining carrier network capacity, this provides an opportunity for the carriers to augment their networks with other providers or allow other providers to provide competitive services. This will only support the expansion of fiber and network services to communities that were outside of commercial areas.

Check out the video on YouTube to watch the full Day Three of the NEDAS Spring Virtual Symposium.