An emerging use case for 5G is that of private 5G networks. In essence a private 5G network will be the next generation local area network (LAN), incorporating 5G technologies and enabling more advanced use cases than can be supported by current technologies. Private LTE networks are already commercial reality, and regulators, manufacturers and potential users are now looking ahead to what 5G will be able to offer.
What is a private 5G network?
Also known as a local 5G network, a private 5G network is a local area network (LAN) that will use 5G technologies to create a dedicated network with unified connectivity, optimised services and a secure means of communication within a specific area. It will deliver the speed, latency and other benefits promised by 5G to support next-generation applications.
As 5G will build on 4G and 4.5G LTE technologies, private 5G networks will build on the private LTE networks that are already being rolled out, many of which utilise 5G-ready equipment.
What are the advantages?
As with other LANs, a 5G private network will be dedicated to the owner, independently managed and easy to deploy. However, there are some key advantages 5G will have over technologies available today.
Wireless: A 5G private network will eliminate the need for wired technologies like Ethernet. Not only are they costly and bulky, they are impractical for connecting large numbers of small devices or in a dynamic environment where people, devices and equipment are on the move.
Network slicing: A key feature of 5G will be the ability to create multiple virtual networks that can be customised and optimised for the specific service and traffic that will use the particular network slice. In the context of a private 5G network this means that the network can be optimised for the needs of the user and the different uses within the network.
- Further reading: What is network slicing?
Control: Provisioning a 5G private network will be done in-house so the owner of the network will have complete control over every aspect of the network, such as security (more below), how the various resources are utilised, and what actions have priority so that mission critical devices (and the data they transmit) are prioritised over less important ones.
Latency: 5G will have far lower latency than current cellular and wireless technologies, which will enable real-time communication between devices, a crucial factor in applications such as public safety or robotic motion control.
- Further reading: How fast is 5G?
Bandwidth: The superior bandwidth of 5G will allow vast quantities of data to be transmitted over the network, with simultaneous uplink and downlink communication with a huge number of devices.
Security: A private 5G network will be more secure than current technologies because the network operator will be able to set up its own security policies rather than relying on an outside provider. It will also enable data to be stored locally, i.e. on the premises. In a world where data breaches and cyber attacks are a regular occurrence and data protection regulations are being tightened, the security angle could be a key selling point.
What are the use cases?
An early area of interest is in industrial internet of things (IIoT) applications. Consider the factory of the future – often referred to as Industry 4.0. Sensors will be installed in the factory to monitor environmental conditions, on equipment to monitor that everything is working as it should and to identify any potential issues before they occur, and on the end products for quality control and custom manufacturing.
All that data will be collected and analysed to give highly detailed insight into every facet of the factory’s operation. Machine learning-capable robots will build products and move goods and equipment in and around the factory, using and generating yet more data. Manufacturing will shift from an assembly line to the production of highly customised products, with workers streaming augmented reality videos or working in virtual environments. None of this will be possible without 5G.
Standardised by the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project), LTE’s mission critical push to talk (Mission-Critical PTT) capabilities are being embraced by the critical communications industry, which is starting to deploy 5G-ready private LTE networks. Organisations such as public safety agencies and railway operators are using these networks for applications including PTT group communications and real-time video surveillance, and 5G private networks will build on them to give guaranteed connectivity and support a wider range of uses.
5G private networks may also find a home in remote and underserved locations where the infrastructure needed to deliver 5G’s performance simply won’t exist.
Campus environments like universities, hospitals, military bases or transport hubs could benefit from a 5G private network to meet the requirements demanded by IoT applications, such as always-on connectivity, mobility, security and low latency. In fact, pretty much any campus, enterprise building or public venue could be a candidate for a private 5G network, especially if public 5G network rollout is slow or delayed in a particular area.
What are the challenges?
Apart from the fact that 5G services are only just starting to be launched and network slicing is still in the development stage, there are other hurdles to overcome before private 5G networks can become reality.
A major one is spectrum, as the 5G spectrum currently available is in the hands of mobile operators.
- Further reading: What is 5G?
A build your own network (BYON) model might be the answer. It is proving popular in the LTE space, whereby mobile operators provide access to their spectrum so an organisation can establish a private LTE network it owns, controls and operates. Service providers are also in the mix, offering private LTE and 5G-ready networks through partnerships with network infrastructure OEMs, often with a specific industry focus.
However, while many private LTE networks are 5G-ready, it’s not a given that MNOs will be happy to part with valuable 5G spectrum via a BYON offering. Several large European MNOs have already spoken out against private 5G networks. Operators will need a substantial amount of spectrum to make 5G a reality and may be unwilling to cede control of even a small part of it.
That said, the level of investment that will be required to roll out 5G means they will need to consider new revenue streams, and spectrum licensing could be one. The cost would need to be low enough to make business sense for the organisation wanting a private 5G network, and high enough to make it worthwhile for the spectrum owner.
European regulators are considering setting aside spectrum for large private users, although it’s not clear how much or even whether it would be licensed or unlicensed spectrum. If it were the former, would it be a question of the user leasing spectrum from the regulator or the regulator imposing conditions on the spectrum owner? If the latter, would there need to be some form of control over who could use the spectrum, how, where and when?
Of course, 5G New Radio (5G NR) is being designed to optimise the available spectrum, licensed, shared or unlicensed and across a range of frequency bands. This should mean there is spectrum available for private 5G networks but could add another layer of complexity.
It’s still very early days and too soon to call which scenario will play out. The likelihood is that some combination of the above will underpin private 5G networks.
Other problems centre around technical expertise, as any organisation wanting a 5G private network is unlikely to have in-house experience in setting up and managing one. Acquiring or outsourcing that knowhow would add to perhaps the largest barrier of all: cost. It’s still unknown, but we can be reasonably certain that a private 5G network will not come cheap.
Where are we now?
It’s still very early days but particular interest is coming from Germany, which coined the term Industrie 4.0 as a national initiative to help the country stay at the forefront of advanced manufacturing. Companies in the automotive, manufacturing, utilities, shipping, chemical, and oil and gas sectors have all expressed interest in operating local 5G networks to the Federal Network Agency (BNA, the German body responsible for spectrum).
In summer 2018 Audi (part of Volkswagen) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Ericsson to explore the use of 5G in its factories. The first trial would involve using 5G to control two wirelessly controlled production robots. Audi believes 5G will enable it to connect manufacturing robots and other devices more quickly and securely than its existing networks, and create a more flexible and agile production environment. It currently uses Wi-Fi for its main wireless technology and Ethernet for most connections to robots, but Wi-Fi struggles when robots need to move quickly or stream data in real time, and the fixed connections means the robots’ movements are limited. However, a full 5G private network won’t come any time soon and is contingent on Audi getting access to spectrum. The timeframe envisages 5G being deployed in production facilities at its German HQ within a few years, before being rolled out to other group factories.
Ericsson is also paving the way to a 5G private network for United Nations peacekeeping missions. In October 2018 it was awarded a contract to provide 4G LTE mission critical networks for the missions, with the first set to go live at some point in 2019. Ericsson will supply its 5G-ready radio systems to support these remote operations.
A big step forward was taken in December 2018 when the 3GPP approved a work item to bring 5G NR to unlicensed spectrum. NR-U will become part of the 3GPP’s Release 16 specification due in 2020. It will enable unlicensed 5G networks to be deployed without any connection to licensed spectrum, so that an organisation will be able to build a standalone 5G radio network with a 5G core in a defined area for its own use – i.e. a private 5G network.
Also, in December 2018 the MulteFire Alliance completed the second iteration of its specification, which will be publicly available in mid-2019. In addition to improving performance, Release 1.1 is optimised for IoT and adds support for eMTC-U and NB-IoT as well as additional spectrum bands. MulteFire is a global organisation set up in late 2015 to promote MulteFire, an LTE-based cellular technology that operates in unlicensed and shared spectrum. Its technology roadmap is aligned with 3GPP 5G standards to support 5G NR and other next-generation technologies. Major 5G manufacturers are behind the technology (Nokia and Qualcomm were founding members, Ericsson and Intel were members at launch, and Huawei joined in late 2016) and it could be key to unlocking private 5G networks.
The reality is that there is a long way to go before private 5G networks are a reality. Early adopters are likely to be large organisations with deep pockets and a compelling business case, but there are opportunities for private 5G networks across industry, business, utilities and the public sector.
Take-up may well depend on how quickly public 5G networks are rolled out and where, as an organisation in an area with no public 5G coverage may decide not to wait but to put in its own local network. The security needs of the organisation – and how secure public 5G networks prove to be – will also be key.