Private 5G Networks

Re-evaluating the role of connectivity

In CCS Insight’s recent survey of IT decision-makers, connectivity was ranked the sixth biggest priority for investment over the next 18 months (see IT Decision-Maker Workplace Technology Survey 2019). Security of networks, cloud services, devices and applications all featured as the leading priorities of IT decision-makers, along with cloud productivity and collaboration. This isn’t necessarily a surprise. Security is mission-critical, the risks substantial and threats are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Privacy and management of data is another area of primary focus. Connectivity is the lifeblood of the modern economy but it’s now so central to commerce that it’s almost taken for granted. This was clear in our Employee Workplace Technology Survey, 2019, which indicated that connectivity is employees’ single biggest technology frustration in the workplace.

However, we believe that connectivity will go through a renaissance over the coming years. Automation, massive machine-based communication and the emergence of a data-driven economy will spark a re-evaluation of the role of connectivity within business.

This won’t happen overnight, but we’re already seeing signs of renewed interest in connectivity thanks to Wi-Fi 6, 5G and most significantly, the scope for the wider introduction of private LTE networks. Indeed, the advent of OnGo technology from the CBRS Alliance in the US, based on 3.5 GHz mid-band spectrum, will be a major enabler of private 5G networks.

The reason for this is clear. Private 5G networks provide several theoretical advantages in efficiency, performance, security and control and privacy. The radio access network can be designed and optimized for a particular environment and set of capabilities. This doesn’t just include the location of access points for optimal performance, but also factors such as configuration of the uplink and downlink, traffic prioritization and policy control. The cellular base station itself comes with a more secure protocol using GPRS Tunneling Protocol, creating secure tunnels for data traffic.

These factors haven’t been widely applicable in enterprise decision-making, but the advent of high-throughput and low-latency 5G will see private networks becoming more relevant to certain industry sectors. Manufacturing, warehousing and retail companies could find them particularly attractive, as wireless connections enable greater efficiency, easier reconfiguration of production lines and wider and more flexible use of robotics needing ultralow latency. The precision and uptime requirement of such networks mean that proprietary forms of Ethernet have been necessary to date. Other uses include wide-area video surveillance, mission-critical communications, point of sale in retail and remote control of devices or vehicles.

Although 5G isn’t going to spark a sudden shift to wireless connectivity for such operational technology, we expect to see early signs of experimentation in 2020. The importance of security and data privacy is also likely to foster interest beyond specific industries, as the ability to directly control both core and radio access networks and maintain data on site aligns with ever-more stringent approaches to security. The parameters still need to be defined, but security is a big part of the attraction of private 5G networks.

A good example highlighting the scope for private LTE and 5G networks is a recent move from JMA Wireless, which is deploying a private LTE network for the American Dream Meadowlands retail and entertainment complex in New Jersey. By deploying the OnGo 3.5 GHz CBRS spectrum band and JMA Wireless’ XRAN technology running on Intel servers, initial uses will centre on traffic management and wayfinding information systems. This is just the start of the potential applications.

Intel and Corning recently announced a strategic partnership to accelerate the availability of 5G in buildings through an enterprise platform that combines Corning’s wireless connectivity portfolio with Intel’s Xeon Scalable Processors, FlexRAN reference software, FPGA Programmable Acceleration Card N3000 and its Ethernet 700 Series network adapters.

There are inevitably challenges that need to be addressed to scale the opportunity beyond these early examples. Spectrum availability is one area. Although licensed and unlicensed spectrum approaches will be adopted with private networks, both have their drawbacks for companies seeking advantages of control, capacity, devices, quality of service and security, depending on the use. This is where spectrum for industrial purposes may begin to emerge more widely (for specific industrial uses and depending on the market and availability).

This also raises the question of how networks will be deployed and managed. Support for unlicensed 5G New Radio in 3GPP Release 16 will be another important enabler of networks deployed privately or by third parties. We fully expect network operators, cloud hyperscalers, systems integrators and private enterprises to take a wide range of approaches, providing a far greater range of network deployment and management options than we see today. Germany has recently started the application process for private licences in the 3.7 GHz to 3.8 GHz spectrum range.

Private 5G networks won’t replace legacy approaches immediately, but early experimentation coupled with new spectrum and deployment approaches points to the rise of private network uses that should see real progress from the second half of 2020. This will prompt the re-evaluation of the role of connectivity within business. In our survey, employees rated 5G as the tech trend that stands to have the biggest impact on their organizations, ahead of big data, artificial intelligence and cloud. This is just the beginning.

A version of this article was first published by FierceWireless on 16 December 2019.