Tom Wang - stock.adobe.com
Although public 5G is getting all the hype these days, CIOs should keep their eyes on the potential of private 5G as way to consolidate their networking strategy across the enterprise. The technology is still in its early days, but as the technology, regulatory framework and services improve, it could provide a viable alternative to traditional wireless networks, replace some needs for wired networks and enable entirely new kinds of applications, like augmented reality or denser robotics.
Private 5G companies can use the technology to solve various sets of business challenges and use cases they were unable to solve with existing technology, such as reducing cost through video analytics or generating new revenues based on near-real-time responsiveness, according to Jefferson Wang, managing director and global 5G offering co-lead at Accenture.
Some of the key benefits enterprises are asking for include improved customization, dedication and control. A CIO must also consider balancing Capex to stand up a 5G private network against the overall business value today and how it could set the foundation for tomorrow.
"A 5G private network cannot solve every problem, so having a very clear strategy and business case is critical to success, along with ongoing operational considerations," Wang said.
Due to technology, spectrum and coverage area, the market is getting highly competitive. A wide range of vendors, systems integrators, telecommunication providers and specialized partners are trying to conquer this space. There is also an emergence of software companies that are utilizing disaggregated 5G technology to develop a new blend of server infrastructure called multi-edge access computing.
"Private 5G is starting to show potential as the barriers to entry are lower than previously," said Aaron Partouche, 5G and edge director at Colt Technology Services, a telecommunication company in Europe.
New cloud deployment models
"Cloud-based delivery models for private 5G [are] high on the agenda of both enterprise and telcos, where a 5G core [is] deployed in the cloud," said Azhar Sayeed, chief architect at Red Hat.
The core is essentially the backbone connecting to the internet, while the radio access network (RAN) provides local access between mobile devices and back to the core. The network is dedicated to the users that subscribe to it and is delivered as a slice from the public network or as a smaller dedicated deployment.
This is an attractive proposition for cloud providers, telcos and enterprises because it doesn't require IT teams to learn and operate mobile technologies. Also, telcos can utilize their private cloud to host the control plane and offer it as a managed service.
"We are seeing more interest and engagement on private 5G now with a timeline for deployment in the next 12 [to] 18 months," Sayeed said.
Better device interconnectivity
Private 5G companies can enable improved edge-to-edge communications, a better performance/cost ratio and more reliable handoffs compared to traditional wireless technologies, like Wi-Fi.
"Private 5G will often be used for mission-critical applications and in situations where a high degree of mobility is required," said Jason Shepherd, vice president of ecosystem at Zededa, an edge computing tools provider.
For example, it would bring flexibility to automotive manufacturing, where both tooling and workers could be dynamically reconfigured or deployed throughout the day. Private 5G can also provide highly dense and performant connectivity for remote outdoor sites, such as mines and farms, where it's not feasible to install Wi-Fi infrastructure throughout.
According to Shepherd, a major advantage of private 5G over public 5G is control over the network topology and radio placement to optimize performance and reliability for specific use cases. There are also efforts to extend these benefits over semi-private 5G networks built on top of Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS). The U.S. Federal Communications Commission recently designated a band of CBRS spectrum for public use between 3.55 GHz and 3.77 GHz. It's more controlled than traditional Wi-Fi with three tiers of priority access that need to coordinate; however, it's easier to get access to this spectrum than truly private licensing arrangements might require.
This scheme is also likely to reduce interference compared to Wi-Fi networks. Shepherd expects CBRS to improve private 5G potential for use cases that are latency-critical, such as process control and robotics, especially when it is used in conjunction with technologies like time-sensitive networking.
Another advantage of private 5G is that local bandwidth consumption doesn't necessarily come with additional cost once the cost of the infrastructure is covered. Local edge computing nodes can then process this data before backhauling events as needed over metered WANs.
Despite the vast potential of private 5G, Shephard does not expect it to completely replace other wireless LAN technologies.
"After all, we have Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cellular in our phones for a reason," he said. "Wi-Fi will still be common for back-office use, guest access and other applications."
Watch out for the 5G wash
CIOs need to be mindful of the current climate of 5G washing. Although, in theory, the technology can be faster, it faces several stumbling blocks. For example, much of the promise of extremely high speeds is predicated on higher-wavelength radios, which are more subject to being blocked by water, including rain and human bodies.
There are also several competing approaches to implementing 5G equipment, which could create interference. In existing wireless networks where standards are well agreed upon, the contention between devices is typically resolved using any number of schemes involving timing, frequency diversity or radio diversity. However, major RAN equipment vendors are promoting their own approach to resolving contention using their own proprietary implementations to ensure consistent performance and reliability, said Peter Dougherty, CEO at MantisNet, an observability platform vendor.
The real hope for private 5G companies may lay in increased consistency promised by efforts like OpenRAN, spearheaded by O-RAN Alliance.
"If the capabilities and behaviors of the next-generation RAN devices are defined and standardized with a common set of controls, then advanced analytics software, including AI and machine learning technologies, can be used to minimize 'fighting cells,' possibly causing disruptions so as to optimize reliability and performance," Dougherty said.
He believes the potential of private 5G will only be realized when all the major equipment vendors cooperate to do what's best for the industry as a whole.
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