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Much of the industry hype surrounding 5G centers on its ability to deliver blazingly fast speeds for consumer applications. However, CIOs should take note of the potential of 5G to transform private networking infrastructure. It promises higher speeds, lower latency and stronger connections than existing commercial services like 4G or private infrastructure such as Wi-Fi and some enterprises are already deploying private 5G use cases to prove its value.
"5G is the first generation of mobile [and] wireless communications that was built to handle advanced enterprise applications that need significantly lower latency and higher capacity," said Oleg Berzin, senior director of technology innovation at Equinix.
What is private 5G and how is it different from public 5G?
Unlike public 5G, a private 5G network provides organizations with improved customization and full control of their own connectivity, thus allowing IT leaders to consolidate their networking strategy across the enterprise.
A private 5G network uses small, local cellular towers or to provide internet access points, similar to Wi-Fi. Private institutions, such as colleges, large manufacturing facilities and other businesses that operate large physical campuses, can deploy their own network of towers operating on their own wireless spectrum to deliver 5G speeds locally.
The technology is still in its early days with regulators sorting out the spectrum that will be available for 5G. Equipment providers, carriers and cloud providers are figuring out how they are going to provision services that actually meet the lofty guarantees set by proponents. 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 new kinds of applications like AR or denser robotics.
What are the benefits of private 5G?
Enterprises have always benefited from better connectivity, said Jefferson Wang, managing director and global 5G strategy lead at Accenture. But better connectivity has many dimensions such as more responsiveness or adding additional devices and sensors more easily. But there are other dimensions that define a better connection such as more security and reliability or even the dedicated end-to-end power and customization of a network slice.
"That's where private 5G network comes into play," he said.
Private 5G use cases in the enterprise
Enterprises will need to decide how to provision the private 5G use cases that deliver real-world ROI, but several are already starting to explore -- and in some cases even deploy them. The following are eight of the early private 5G use cases already proving valuable in the enterprise.
1. Upgrading 4G
5G is currently more of a proof of concept that will likely take several years before it reaches a point of mainstream adoption.
"Very few enterprises are asking ISG for support in building out private 5G networks," said David Lessin, director of network operations and research at global technology research and advisory firm ISG. This is likely due to the historical patterns of mobile operators setting up network infrastructure at their own cost. "Their perception is there isn't enough 5G deployment to consider the possibilities yet," Lessin said.
However, enterprises that have already deployed private 4G networks are growing more interested.
"Those that use 4G networks for their last-mile backups will likely shift to 5G -- even for primary connections -- but only when public 5G densifies in order to provide significant enough coverage to provide an ROI for changing out the SIMS already in place," Lessin said.
For this reason, public 4G and 5G networks will be used simultaneously for the next few years.
2. Domain specific services
Another private 5g use case that companies should take note of involves exploring opportunities to provide new services that combine domain expertise, systems integration, networking and physical infrastructure. This will be particularly important for applications that combine operational technology (OT) and IT in new ways such as industrial automation, factories and energy.
"Private 5G is enabling new types of service providers that can offer more domain-specific expertise compared to a traditional telco," said Jason Shepherd, vice president of ecosystem at Zededa, an edge tools provider.
For example, industrial companies like Siemens are investing in spectrum and infrastructure to optimize connectivity for their industrial control equipment throughout their customers' factories. These service providers could specialize in domains like real-time control of robotics, intelligent video analytics for real-world process mining and AR for interaction with machines and industrial processes.
3. Campus networks
According to Lessin, 5G campus networks, or private 5G, are one of the major areas of investment for telecommunication companies like Deutsche Telekom, where the provider worked and co-innovated with its partners and customers to make the technology stable. The expectations for these networks have gone beyond just improving cellular coverage to exploring new features like IoT coordination and AR.
The idea is to help customers better use 5G while the telecommunication companies add new technologies on the customer side to enable them to have the signal everywhere. A private layer would be on top of this so that the end user can work with the required spectrum. In the short run, these deployments are only going to make sense in larger enterprises.
"An enterprise should consider implementing 5G campus networks if it is at least a billion euros in revenue or a very large university," Lessin said.
CIOs need to consider the associated cost of the entire stack of sensors, applications, hardware and software that needs to be combined to make these pay off. Larger enterprises like Osram and BMW are already experimenting with these campus networks. It will take a bit of time for the economics to scale down for smaller companies.
There are very few types of facilities that have higher device population densities than in healthcare, Lessin said. Security is also at a premium -- by harvesting generated data and combining it with AI, the potential to improve healthcare is limitless. Trends and anomalies that would otherwise go unnoticed could lead to improvements in patient safety and outcomes.
The high reliability of 5G could also make it easier to ensure access to improved mobile connectivity for safety critical equipment as it moves around facilities.
Factories today have a wide range of wired and wireless networking infrastructure. Private 5G could play a key role in improving the density and performance of robotics, autonomous vehicles and other automation technologies in the factory. This will be critical for enabling robots to work closer to humans. In many cases, robots and humans are kept separate for safety reasons or they are slowed down to reduce the risk of injury.
"Robots that currently use Wi-Fi struggle to perform quick movements or stream data in real time, and fixed connections limit their movement," Lessin said.
Volkswagen, which owns Audi, aims to have 5G deployed across 122 factories by 2021.
5G allows the placement and access of vastly more sensors or telemetry assisting compared to the current Wi-Fi and 4G volume limitations and at significantly lower costs per sensor. It also enables the flexibility to move them easily compared to wired infrastructure. This will make it possible to increase the number of robots that can be reliably controlled in any given facility without increasing infrastructure associated with wired sensors and controllers.
6. Oil and gas
Oil and gas facilities are likely to be another early adopter of private 5G networks because many of their facilities are located outside the range of commercial networks. For example, Accenture has been working with AT&T to deploy a private LTE network, upgradeable to 5G, at a refinery for Phillips 66.
"Currently Wi-Fi is typically used as a wireless solution, but there are coverage issues across an entire refinery or campus, not to mention ongoing maintenance complexity," Wang said. The partnership is exploring unlocking a variety of private 5G use cases around worker safety, predictive maintenance and enhanced training.
7. Smart facilities
5G will enable large venues such as stadiums and malls to explore various 5G private use cases around smart facilities that blend AI and IoT in new ways.
"Private 5G networks supporting ubiquitous IoT devices -- some of them running sophisticated AI algorithms -- will transform the operation of buildings, factories and semipublic spaces like stadiums and event venues," said Dirk Mersch, managing director at Cambridge Innovation Consulting.
According to Mersch, one challenge is obtaining spectrum approval because of concerns about interference with public networks, even though 5G can be configured to operate over relatively short range. However, many of these deployments may be paused until after the pandemic.
"Private 5G was beginning to be popular in sports and concert venues, but the deployment of 5G within those facilities may be slowed by the pandemic as venues are shuttered or attendance is restricted," Lessin said.
"Another important application for private 5G [use cases] is in logistics, specifically for tracking, monitoring and sorting packages and shipments integrated with inventory systems," Mersch said.
This could help to improve the throughput of these facilities without increasing the number of people. However, he cautions that many of these facilities are located within range of public 5G networks and may cause interferences, which poses as a challenge that they'll need to resolve. He expects these kinds of applications to see early deployment in late 2022, depending on regulatory and spectrum allocation processes.