Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Mark Bole, CEO at Quortus, reflects on the growing global opportunity for private networks and the gains that can be made with LTE today, versus 5G in the future
The decision taken by global regulators to set aside 5G spectrum for the creation of private networks has stimulated debate around the world. The technical capabilities of 5G does create exciting possibilities for enterprises looking to create bespoke networks to enable very demanding applications. Those discussed have included remote surgery in hospitals or autonomous cars on public roads.
Most of these use cases have a number of things in common. They all require standalone 5G infrastructure to deliver the ultra-low latency or massive machine capabilities to materialise. They require key 5G-specific advancements at the network edge to function and dedicated, uncontended bandwidth. This will require detailed knowledge of how to design and build private networks to deliver the benefits they promise. This won’t come as a surprise to organisations investing in private 5G networks, but most will accept that it will be at least 2-3 years before these advanced capabilities become reality.
Should this or will this dissuade organisations from building private 5G networks? Absolutely not. The benefits in many industries will far outweigh the challenges. Organisations that have most to gain from 5G specific benefits will wait for 5G to meet the expectations on advanced features. But there are many companies that do not need to wait for the full capabilities of 5G to achieve significant gains from private networks today.
Why build private networks?
First, organisations must consider why they want to build a private network in the first place. The answer is simple – to get levels of network coverage, capacity and control that they simply couldn’t get from a mobile operator. We all know the patchy nature of mobile coverage. The strength of signal is entirely linked to the location of an organisation or venue relative to the position of a mobile base station. Mobile operators simply can’t guarantee adequate coverage at a particular facility, or factory.
There are similar constraints when it comes to network capacity too. Again, within a mobile operator enterprise SLA, the available capacity to any organisation will depend on levels of contention. Uplink and downlink speeds are directly impacted by the number of other users on the network at the same time. Services can’t therefore easily be prioritised, and in turn, the bandwidth to power them can’t be guaranteed.
Undoubtedly, the most attractive element of a private network to any organisation is the additional control and security it offers. When you have dedicated coverage and capacity, it can be prioritised to applications or individuals on an hour by hour or even a second-by-second basis. Specific radios can be optimised to maximise reliability and reduce latency. If enterprises operate their own network, information doesn’t need to leave their premises. It can be very tightly guarded and controlled which is crucial when supporting more sensitive, mission critical use cases and applications.
4.9G LTE – for many it’s close enough
As previously mentioned, there will be some mission-critical use cases that will only work on a 5G network. This applies particularly to those applications that need the 1 millisecond of latency that 5G promises. But, looking at all addressable use cases for private cellular networks, those requiring 5G are relatively limited. This is because the capabilities of LTE Advance Pro, or 4.9G, are more than adequate for most private network applications. For example, the 10ms-15ms latency of LTE is already sufficiently small for the majority of industrial, manufacturing and warehouse applications supported by standards like Profinet today.
LTE also sits within the 3GPP family and will naturally evolve into 5G over time. 4.9G does not support the full mMTC (Massive Machine Type Communications) of 5G but it does support NB-IoT and Cat-M1 IoT. Both are certainly good enough for a wide range of IoT applications including support for easily deployed, battery powered devices at range – devices that can’t be supported by Wi-Fi. There are countless IoT use cases in agriculture and in the utilities space that can be well served on this basis.
A technical and operational steppingstone
Learning how to deploy and effectively manage a private network takes time. Generating maximum operational efficiency from initial investments relies on having a detailed understanding of what existing networks and systems can be consolidated for maximum gain. If standalone 5G networks are mainstream by 2023, that presents a three-year window for enterprises to fully explore what they need from 5G that they can’t already get from 4.9G today. Having this detailed understanding, as well as knowing the ins and outs of how to run a private network, presents considerable competitive advantage to any organisation.
Mark has over 30 years of experience in the mobile and technology industries. Having previously been CEO of several successful VC and private equity backed companies, Mark brings a deep understanding of building sustainable growth in the technology industry.