Are Private 4G/5G Networks a New Battleground for Operators?

Kathryn Weldon – Research Director, Business Network and IT Services – Americas

ary Bullets:

• Mobile operators are hoping to generate substantial revenues from in-building 4G/5G networks; 5G in particular provides an opportunity to replace legacy WiFi and DAS systems and support both fixed and mobile use cases.

• However, private network initiatives from infrastructure vendors, coupled with a scramble for CBRS licenses, as well as DIY plans from companies and commercial landlords imply fierce competition for the operators. Can they win the battle?

Nearly every mobile operator touting future 5G use cases has discussed support for private “in-building” networks as a substantial opportunity, especially in industrial environments in which every machine and environmental parameter sensor will be connected and transmitting data in real-time. While some operators already offer private networks using 4G LTE, many are scoping out future 5G offerings which focus on IoT use cases in industrial environments.

• Telefonica offers an LTE-Enterprise service in which the customer manages its own private communications via dedicated spectrum, but receives interference-free connectivity, support for massive connectivity, transparent public/private offload, QoS, mobility (in addition to fixed) connections, security, and edge computing support. The operator uses partners (including Ericsson) to support the offering.

• Vodafone noted at MWC that it will provide a range of private network options including spot usage of unlicensed LTE, localized usage of public LTE, and dedicated slices of its public 5G networks. It is currently testing 5G for factory automation and notes that 5G provides the ability to “lay a private network over a factory, take IoT from a data network to a control network, introduce mobile edge computing, and leverage cloud and hybrid cloud for a perfect storm of technologies”.

• At its analyst event in 2018 Verizon discussed the “Real-Time Enterprise” and its future ability to “revolutionize industry with 5G by enabling real-time business processes that exploit information, actions, and events the moment they occur”. IoT applications with massive connectivity requirements, network and edge application integration, and real-time and automated operational intelligence will be technology drivers. It sees manufacturing, retail and healthcare as its largest vertical opportunities for 5G, all of which may include in-building “private” or hybrid private/public use cases.

• AT&T is working with Samsung on a manufacturing-focused 5G “Innovation Zone” at Samsung’s Austin Semiconductor factory. The goal of the testbed is to provide a real-world understanding of how 5G can impact manufacturing and provide insight into the future of a Smart Factory. It features AT&T’s 5G wireless technology with Samsung’s 5G network equipment, and among other benefits, is helping Samsung to get rid of the spaghetti of hard-wired connections it previously used to connect its machines.

• Orange Business Services is already offering private IoT networks using LoRa LPWAN technology. It launched a service called IoT Connect Anywhere in 2018 and notes that it is providing the service for a U.S.-based multinational oil and gas company, across a widespread campus, for continuous mobile asset tracking and asset management.

So what’s wrong with this view of the future, in which the operators can soon leverage their 5G network assets and expertise to provide a logical upgrade path to what they often position as increasingly outdated DAS and WiFi networks by carving out dedicated spectrum from their public networks, or installing small cells and repeaters in buildings to offer truly private wireless networks?

According to Nokia, large companies are going to need to invest in their own private networks to have control over their own infrastructure, and the vendor is planning to generate revenue by helping them set up private LTE and future 5G networks, especially in the manufacturing vertical, potentially side-stepping the operators altogether. Nokia plans to use unlicensed spectrum options such as MulteFire and has applied for CBRS licenses which offer LTE in the 3.5GHz band. Admittedly all four U.S. operators are also applying for CBRS licenses to hedge their bets, but so are companies such as Comcast, Charter, Google, Intel, Nokia, and Qualcomm.

Enterprises looking for private wireless network solutions may think of going to their wireless operators but they can also go to infrastructure vendors such as Nokia, Ericsson, or Huawei, directly to small cell vendors such as Ruckus and Spider Cloud, or to specialist system integrators to help them deploy and manage them. Are the operators agile enough to get their first?

This discussion also may assume erroneously that WiFi is dead, which is news to vendors like Cisco, Juniper, and HPE/Aruba as well as the IT managers that collectively manage billions of devices on enterprise networks today. With the latest WiFi standard (802.11ax or WiFi 6) already available, and with an easy upgrade path from the billions of devices already installed, it is possible that 5G will not displace the current generation of private networks. IT managers may also balk at having service providers penetrate too deeply into their network. From their perspective, in-building 5G may actually represent a significant loss of control.


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