With 5G mobile networks moving from far-fetched pipe dream to tangible reality, some enterprises are beginning to look at how the technology can be used to provide their own private 5G networks so they can better prepare the infrastructure for technologies such as the internet of things (IoT).
Essentially, a private 5G network can be described as a wireless local area network (LAN) that uses 5G technologies to create a network with dedicated bandwidth and infrastructure, which provides an organisation’s connectivity needs.
According to Jon Abbott, EMEA technology director of Vertiv, the concept of the private network is not a new one; private LTE networks have been around for some time.
“The speed increase with 5G is the driving force behind it growing popularity,” he says. “However, 5G deployment is still in its infancy and we use movement from standardisation bodies implementing models for Industry 4.0 or smart buildings as an indicator that the 5G private network are a foundational component for their future.”
Figures on adoption of private 5G networks are hard to come by as services have only just started to launch and relevant technologies such as network slicing are still being developed.
But a big driver behind the growth that has been seen to date in private 5G has been the release of unlicensed spectrum for industry verticals giving manufacturers the option to deploy their own private 5G, or so-called 4.9G, networks, without having to work with an operator. Stephane Daeuble, head of private wireless networks solutions marketing at Nokia, says he has seen this happening in France, Germany, Finland, Sweden and the US.
The US in particular and North America in general, also seems to be emerging as a very large potential market in this regard, according to R Ezhirpavai, vice-president of technology at design and engineering consultancy Altran.
“Popularity soared there after CBRS [Citizen’s Band Radio Service] spectrum was launched for enterprises to own and launch private networks and they do not have to go through service providers for their own private cellular networks,” she says.
But this might not be the case for much longer, as Daeuble notes: “Mobile operators are now realising the potential, hence are more willing to also lease their spectrum or to offer such private wireless networks to their enterprise customers.”
A second major factor behind the rise of the private network is the virtualisation of network elements. Software-defined networking (SDN) is now a reality that enables any commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) server to run software, reducing the need for specialised (and very expensive) hardware, according to Rui Inacio, head of consultancy and solutions at wireless consultancy Vilicom.
“This lowers the entry barriers of the industry and is allowing smaller IT companies to innovate and disrupt the mobile network world,” he says.
The spectrum challenge
One of the main challenges to private 5G network operators is spectrum availability. William Charlesworth, associate at Child & Child, Globalaw, says that there is a finite amount of spectrum, mostly in the hands of the main operators, who need a lot of it themselves in order to deliver an effective service.
“How willing they would be to give up a proportion of the spectrum for private networks remains to be seen, but as the investment required to set up 5G is considerable, the established players may be willing to share in exchange for income from private providers,” he says.
Charlesworth adds that it may also be necessary for governments to step in and legislate the sharing between public and private networks in the interests of competition.
Another challenge to consider is the level of technical skill that is likely to be required to set up and service a private 5G network. “Whether the cost of a private network, at the outset at least, is sustainable for a private provider, remains to be seen,” he says.
Kamal Bhadada, president of TCS Communications, media and technology, echoes this, saying that enterprises, telecom operators and regulators need to work together to address these issues. “For example, telcos could be expected to cater to the idea of enterprises using licensed spectrum,” he says.
Inacio says that private 5G networks that uses coordinated shared spectrum will require even more careful RF planning, network design, installation, test, management and operation. “This will have to be performed by specialised engineering firms,” he says.
He adds that private private networks are local in nature. He says that one of the requirements for the use of regulated spectrum is the containment of RF propagation so that private networks don’t become a source of interference for external networks radiating on the same band. “For this reason, despite consistency being desirable (mainly from the perspective of manufacturers of user devices), it’s not fundamental.”
We are still only at the beginning of the 5G era, only a few equipment manufacturers have released commercial versions of the technology, and 5G needs to follow a roadmap of development, test and deployment to reach its potential. The version of the standard currently being deployed (the non-standalone configuration) is only the first stage of this roadmap, according to Inacio.
He adds there are interesting lab examples of private networks such as the UK’s government-sponsored 5G Testbeds and Trials scheme, or those being implemented by consortiums of universities.
These testbeds are being used by innovative firms to develop and test applications that benefit from unique 5G features like network slicing, full “softwarisation”, service-oriented-architecture, offering web-services as APIs, and so on.
“The results of these tests are the development of applications that help to establish a set of standard features and characteristics of 5G into network architectures that will underpin software and hardware developments in use cases as diverse as smart cities, rural connectivity or smart tourism,” says Inacio.
Private 5G networks will be characterised by security and privacy, control and flexibility – leveraged by network slicing, vast bandwidth, light costs and low latency.
So it stands to reason their use cases will cover many areas, of which one of the biggest will no doubt be automation and IoT, according to Bhadada at TCS.
“It has a special relevance for the manufacturing-related sectors as it enables the realisation of the factory of the future vision,” he says.
Connected manufacturing involves machines on the assembly line being wirelessly connected to the private 5G network. A connected factory environment enables the generation of huge amounts of data, which can then be used by technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) to gain deeper insights into the business and allow for predictive maintenance.
“Overall, developments like automation, AI/ML and connected processes will enable organisations over the coming years to transform their operations for the better, enabling them to take advantage of new opportunities, embrace risk, and leverage the wider ecosystem to enrich their product offerings,” says Bhadada.
Another use case is in offshore oil platforms. These have always been notoriously difficult to provide connectivity to, simply because running a cable from the platform to the shore was never really a viable option. Therefore oil platforms have suffered lower speeds and intermittent connectivity for many years, according to Majid Ali, principal security consultant at NTT Security
“Private 5G networks aim to leverage to powerful wireless speeds to enable these platforms to calculate production output, the ability to control locally and centrally critical systems, provide a better form of communication and calculate adverse weather,” he adds.
Another interesting use case for private 5G networks could be in war zones. Ali says that these have always been a challenge to government agencies and charities when it comes to providing real-time and accurate information.
“As the nation’s infrastructure is severely restricted, private 5G networks will enable these agencies to deploy remote 5G networks to some of the world’s most war-torn locations,” says Ali. “5G equipment will no doubt be on the list of first things to deploy, already pre-configured, they should be ready to go as soon as a power source is made available.”
How will the next 18 months pan out for private 5G?
We are definitely seeing some organisations becoming more aggressive in the adoption of private 5G, says Ali.
“For example Volkswagen aim to have 5G deployed across 122 factories by 2020, so it would fair to say that the next 12 to 18 months will be critical for organisations in developing their business requirements, placing tenders out to suppliers and testing 5G. By the end of 2020, we should see private 5G networks becoming commonplace in many organisations.”
Ezhirpavai says that as far as industry sectors are concerned, large enterprises will pioneer private 5G networks as they have the budget and resources.
“Entertainment, sports, defence, oil rigs, mines and the aerospace industry will opt for private 5G networks,” she says. “Once the ecosystem is well established and there are established best practise guidelines, smaller enterprises are likely to follow suit.”