Private networks are becoming an increasingly interesting option for many organizations.
Wireless communications for businesses have never been more critical, and the technology choices for enabling that capability have never been more plentiful. As a result, companies are spending a great deal of time weighing the approaches that best suit their requirements.
This is particularly true as companies prepare for a new year that is likely to see a great deal of demands placed on networks, driven by the need to plan for the flexibility that hybrid work models will require. Not surprisingly, one of the most popular possibilities under consideration are private 5G networks. Offering the promise of high throughput, immense capacity, low latency and inherent security, enterprise cellular networks powered by 5G are a seemingly logical choice for a number of organizations.
At the same time, it’s becoming clear that these private networks are not necessarily the right choice for all businesses. WiFi advancements, particularly with the new 6E version, offer compelling benefits for traditional enterprise networks, including significantly improved bandwidth, a host of suppliers, easy management tools, and most notably, nearly universal endpoint support.
There are, however, several environments and industries for which the unique benefits of private 5G make sense. In many outdoor environments, for example, WiFi’s limited range can pose an issue, and coverage and capacity limits start to become more apparent. Cellular networks, on the other hand, support stronger signals which can greatly improve network coverage, even for unlicensed cellular radio spectrum such as CBRS (see “Spectrum-Sharing Technologies Like CBRS Key to More Robust Wireless Networks” for more).
By creating private networks that leverage the free-to-use portion of CBRS spectrum, for example, businesses can create private cellular networks that adequately cover an entire transportation hub, not just a single parking lot. Along those lines, Samsung Networks recently highlighted a private cellular network that they implemented at a major university, which offered strong, consistent coverage across the entire campus. The added draw for the school was the additional security of the network, because all devices need to have a SIM card (or eSIM) that’s registered on the network to get access—as is the case with all public cellular networks—dramatically reducing the risk of rogue devices (or individuals) getting onto the network.
In the case of the university example, the network was built around Samsung Networks’ 4T4R CBRS Remote Radio Head device, which incorporates antennas that can simultaneously transmit and receive four cellular channels, hence the name, as well as Samsung’s Compact Core software, which runs on traditional x86 servers and provides all the necessary core network functions and management software to operate the network. Both the hardware and software support 4G LTE and 5G and even enable both types of networks to run at the same time, if the application requires it.
For indoor environments with time-sensitive networking (TSN) requirements or extremely low latencies—such as advanced manufacturing facilities—some companies have started to explore mmWave-based private 5G networks. Not only does this provide even higher throughput levels because of the additional bandwidth offered by millimeter wave (see “The 5G Landscape, Part 2: Spectrum and Devices” for more), but these types of networks also offer support for an even higher number of devices than many WiFi networks. Of course, mmWave spectrum needs to be licensed, which adds additional costs and complexities to the network deployment. However, for companies that demand URLLC (Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communications), it is still the best choice. For these types of applications, Samsung Networks offers its router-sized Link Cell devices, which can also connect with servers running the company’s Compact Core software stack.
In addition to mainstream deployments, a number of companies are experimenting with private 5G networks, trying to determine new types of futuristic applications and potential benefits. Some logistics companies, for example, are testing private networks with automated guided vehicles (AGVs, which are essentially little robots) that move packages or other elements around a warehouse. In this case, cellular networks supposedly offer more transparent handovers from one connection site to another than do WiFi networks. Other companies are working to develop customized edge computing applications (sometimes referred to as MEC, or Mobile Edge Computing) that can be delivered via a private network infrastructure.
As exciting as the technology may be, it’s clearly still early days for private 5G networks. The previous cost and complexity challenges of licensing (or leasing) custom RF spectrum is now much less of a deal killer, thanks to options like CBRS, so the possibilities for private cellular networks are certainly starting to look more appealing to a larger group of organizations. Still, most organizations lack the expertise to run their own cellular networks, making it necessary to partner with carriers or other specialized solutions providers to get the project off the ground. Thankfully, the availability of lower-cost, simpler, and easier to manage hardware options from companies like Samsung Networks is certainly making the task easier.
Ultimately, companies will need to thoroughly assess their specific current networking and applications requirements, consider how those may change over time, and then map those to the various solutions options now available. The process isn’t easy, but the choices are definitely getting better.
Disclosure: TECHnalysis Research is a tech industry market research and consulting firm and, like all companies in that field, works with many technology vendors as clients, some of whom may be listed in this article.