What is a private 5G network?

17 November 2022

5G private network

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 or non-public 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 have already been deployed, 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.
  • 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.
  • 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, especially for those with sensitive data and commercial intellectual property and for those operating mission-critical applications.
Useful reading: What is network slicing?
Useful reading: How fast is 5G?

What are the use cases?

Industrial Internet of Things ( IIOT)
An early area of interest is in industrial internet of things 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.
Mission-Critical PTT capabilities
But IIoT is not the only use for a private 5G network. 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.
Remote and underserved locations
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 (airports, ports, railway stations) 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 still in their infancy and network slicing is still in the development stage, there are other hurdles to overcome.
A major one is spectrum, as the 5G spectrum that has been licensed to date is in the hands of mobile operators. While some countries have yet to license any 5G spectrum at all, others have started the process of opening up shared spectrum for local use in specific bands, which would enable the deployment of private 5G networks. 
5G New Radio ( 5G NR)
Of course, 5G New Radio 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.
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 too early to put a price on it, but we can be reasonably certain that a private 5G network will not come cheap.

What is the licensing/spectrum situation?

The following section covers the efforts some countries (including the UK) have made to license shared spectrum. 
The UK’s Ofcom introduced a new licensing system in July 2019 covering localised access to the 3.8-4.2GHz band and 1800MHz and 2300MHz shared spectrum – that is spectrum that is already licensed to mobile operators but is not being used or planned to be used in a particular area for the next three years. New licences would only be awarded if the user is unlikely to interfere with the incumbent licensee (ie the UK’s mobile operators) or constrain their future plans. Because of this, Ofcom anticipates that spectrum will only be available to share in remote areas although it believes the 3.8-4.2GHz band is well suited for private industrial 5G networks and will not allow the band to be used for national mobile broadband.
To keep costs down, the licence fee is fixed at £950 for three years to cover Ofcom’s costs in managing the licence. The three-year licence period was criticised during the consultation period by those arguing that it wasn’t long enough to stimulate the market, give new operating models enough time to become established or give enough time for those operating a private 5G network to generate a return on investment. Ofcom’s position is that longer term licences may be issued, but only if the operator holding the requested spectrum agrees. It was more open to the possibility of shorter licences, for example for a temporary network for a pop-up event, and will consider such applications.

As of March 2020, Ofcom had received nine applications for Local Access Licences, only one of which had been approved. This was for a broadband wireless service at a rural location in Dorset, in spectrum held by Vodafone. Four applications were turned down because they were for frequencies and areas where there was current or expected deployment by the licence holders, and the other four were being considered.

Ofcom beat Germany’s Federal Network Agency (BNA) to the punch with a formal licensing regime – although the latter had previously made spectrum available for test purposes. Companies from the automotive, manufacturing, utilities, shipping, chemical, and oil and gas sectors had all expressed interest in operating local 5G networks to the BNA. The BNA has set aside 100MHz of spectrum in the 3.7-3.8GHz band specifically for industrial use in local deployments, and in November 2019 opened applications for 10 year local licences.
In the US, in January 2020 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) concluded a seven-year process to open up the 3.5GHz band for commercial use. Known as the CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service) band, it was previously largely used by the Department of Defense for shipborne radar systems. The CBRS Alliance (which has some 160 members spanning equipment manufacturers, software developers and equipment installers) promotes the OnGo shared spectrum connectivity solution that works in the 3.5GHz band. OnGo- certified devices are commercially available now to enable 4G LTE systems, and the move will pave the way for private 5G networks.
MulteFire is another LTE-based cellular technology that operates in unlicensed and shared spectrum. It is promoted by the global MulteFire Alliance which was set up in 2015 and now has over 30 members including major 5G manufacturers Ericsson, Huawei, Intel, Nokia and Qualcomm. Multefire’s technology roadmap is aligned with 3GPP 5G standards to support 5G NR and other next-generation technologies.
3GPP Release 16
In December 2018 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 that is due to be completed in June 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.

Where are we now?

Early trials of private 5G networks started to take off in 2018, headed up by Germany which coined the term Industrie 4.0 as a national initiative to help the country stay at the forefront of advanced manufacturing and has a large automotive industry. 
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 – 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. In March 2019 Audi and Ericsson demonstrated human-robot interaction in real time.
What is claimed will be the world’s first 5G mobile network in a vehicle assembly factory was announced by Mercedes-Benz Cars (part of Daimler) in summer 2019. Ericsson and Telefonica Germany are installing a private 5G network at the company’s new “Factory 56” in Germany, which will then be operated by the manufacturer. All production systems and machines will be wirelessly and intelligently linked with a central 5G hub and ‘several’ 5G small-cell indoor antennas.
Also in Germany and in the automotive sector, in November 2019 Qualcomm and Siemens announced a 5G private network proof of concept (PoC) project at the Siemens Automotive Test Center. They claim to have demonstrated the first private 5G standalone network in a real industrial environment using the 3.7-3.8GHz band, and will use the network to test and evaluate current industrial technologies (such as the OPC UA machine to machine communication protocol for industrial automation or the Profinet technical standard for data communication over Industrial Ethernet) with 5G.
While IIoT dominates early testing, it is not the only use case receiving attention. Ericsson is laying the foundations for 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, the first of which went live in 2019. Ericsson agreed to supply its 5G-ready radio systems to support these remote operations. In April 2019, SK Telecom agreed to install a private 5G network at the Korea Military Academy campus in Seoul, that will support the use of VR and AR technology in its training and other applications using IoT, artificial intelligence (AI), cloud and big data technologies.

What’s next?

The opening up of shared spectrum licences is paving the way for commercial private 5G networks, but even testing is still at an early stage and real-world deployments are still in their infancy and small in scale. 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. Despite the progress made in opening up shared spectrum in the UK, deployment may be hampered by mobile operators being unwilling to cede their spectrum for longer than the three year licence period set by Ofcom.
Useful read: What is 5G?
Sacha Kavanagh
About Sacha Kavanagh

Research Analyst/ Technical Writer

Sacha has more than 20 years’ experience researching and writing about enterprise tech, telecoms, data centres, cloud and IoT. She is a researcher, writer and analyst, and a regular contributor to 5G.co.uk writing guides and articles on all aspects of 5G.

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