Do we really need private network spectrum?

  • Private Wireless local area networks have been around for a while
  • So why the sudden upswell of interest in what we’re calling ‘Private 5G’?
  • And how crucial is that dedicated private spectrum? 

5G is finally ‘just about here’ as promised. Although the services are still not everywhere in most of the advanced economies, telco-provided 5G is generally available in the key parts of the big cities from where it’s expected to boost overall economic growth. 

But the fact remains that, as of now, 5G hasn’t made the impact promised: The reality hasn’t met the hype.  

Perhaps a lack of innovation is to blame? 

The quest for innovation is one of the reasons regulators have been looking to open up the options for 5G deployment and adoption. There’s also been a push to disaggregate the telco equipment market to make it more responsive, for instance, and telecom jurisdictions have been opening up the service options by licensing spectrum in new ways so that organisations can build and run their own cellular networks. 

The resulting increased availability of ‘private’ spectrum has convinced analysts, Digital Service Providers (DSPs) and equipment vendors that an opportunity has opened up in the enterprise market for high-performance local wireless networks. 

As we pointed out previously, private broadband wireless networks are a challenge on many levels, not least because of the breadth of technical expertise required to get one capable of providing the sort of cast-iron performance and reliability demanded by large and critical installations. (See Private 5G: It’s looming, but what can telcos bring to the party? And are they even being invited?)

As a result, at the ‘big project’ level (which is where effort is being concentrated at the moment), a broad range of specialist input is a prerequisite for a build and that means partnering, and not necessarily with telcos taking the lead partner position. As Dr Spock might have said, “It’s 5G, Jim, but not as we know it...” 

New enterprise opportunities

The focus on private radio networks has come about because of the availability of private spectrum that, in some markets, organisations can acquire. At the same time, 5G has started to properly show up and get itself in the news, says Mike Kennett, Senior Consultant and Head of Regulatory Affairs at Freshwave, a UK digital infrastructure specialist “in the business of bringing mobile operators, central and local government, and real estate providers together to work in new ways.” 

According to Kennett, 5G and Private networks have become unnecessarily conflated. 

“4G is well proven and understood, having been around for 10 years and is sufficient for most of the data applications and use cases currently emerging. But because there’s so much focus on 5G, we’re talking about ‘Private 5G’ rather than using a more general term like ‘radio broadband private networks,’ which could include the use of LTE or other radio data network types. But. that doesn’t roll off the tongue and can’t even be twisted into a standard three-letter-acronym.”

Kennett notes that “4G is what Freshwave is using for all the fully commercial solutions we’ve deployed so far. In our experience, private spectrum is preferred by our [UK] customers for private networks, so rather than go through the regulator, which is making shared access licenses available, those commercial deployments are using mobile operator spectrum,” says Kennett. “That was enabled by one of the three new license types made available in the UK by Ofcom in 2019. It’s called the ‘Local Access Licence’ and it uses MNO spectrum. We got the very first one of those in the UK, and we worked closely with Ofcom and Vodafone to help design the way the licensing process would work. 

“But we’ve also acquired our own licenses for the alternative approach, called ‘Shared Access Spectrum’. We currently use those licenses at our offices to demonstrate solutions to customers.”

With the shared access spectrum option, a company goes straight through the regulator who assigns it and manages the coordination, whereas a local access license in the UK is negotiated with a willing MNO partner that will assign spectrum currently unused in the required location. The arrangement is then cleared with Ofcom. Kennett says the default license period for a local access license is for three years, but the parties are able to negotiate different time periods. 

One murky area is the question of who pays for the spectrum. Obviously, terms and conditions (and what spectrum is available where) is all kept under wraps and becomes a matter for negotiation, but at this stage Kennett thinks MNOs may often be keen to grant unused spectrum for free for ‘strategic’ reasons to particular or potential customers. 

Drawbacks to shared access spectrum include power limitations for urban areas, which can mean more infrastructure is required, while a difficulty with local licenses is that operators tend to have less ‘spare’ 4G spectrum available.

Licensed to thrill  

Clearly, for many companies in search of bullet-proof networking, the much-preferred option is to acquire a license for ‘clean’ private spectrum for their critical applications or operational needs, and they are prepared to go to extra trouble and deal with extra complexity and cost to do so.

This makes private network solutions a promising area for companies prepared to assist them, including of course telcos, network operators and digital service providers of various kinds. 

One such network operator looking to flex its advantages is international network provider, Colt. The company boasts a significant global data network that touches 29,000 buildings globally and provides connectivity to over 900 data centres. According to Mirko Voltolini, Colt’s VP of Innovation, the company sees itself providing connectivity to support customers’ multi and hybrid cloud strategies as they develop new applications. It sees the fast-developing private wireless scene as an opportunity that can’t be missed. 

“There are a number of digital transmission use cases involving manufacturing and deploying 5G on the shop floor, along with AI applications and so forth,” he says. 5G will eventually provide the low latencies and capacity to support massive deployments of smart building ‘things’ across private radio networks. 

So, a high-speed corporate network, such as that offered via Colt, is potentially the important glue to bind these elements together over the wider area, while the addition of broadband private radio networks can finesse the final connectivity to on-premises servers and workloads, phones, computers and machines. This is clearly an important next step.

Therefore, Colt plans to be a significant player in the business of providing and managing private radio networks and recently announced that it had taken the coordination role in a major private 5G pilot along with Icade, ADVA, Airspan Networks, Athonet, Accedian and Tibco on the deployment of an enterprise private 5G pilot at the PB5 La Défense building in Paris. (See Colt, Icade, ADVA, Airspan Networks, Athonet, Accedian and Tibco join forces to deploy enterprise private 5G pilot in France.)

Colt claims the project will test end-to-end private 5G using a disaggregated architecture - hence the multiple partners that are each contributing their specialist offerings to the installation, from radio units through to management and monitoring software. 

For Colt, the pilot paves the way for new innovations for its On-Demand connectivity services, network edge and business vertical propositions, such as smart office and smart manufacturing, says Jaya Deshmukh, Colt’s Executive Vice President (EVP) of Strategy and Transformation.

Take your partners 

The number of partners involved, each with its disaggregated offering, should give some idea of the organisational and technical complexity inherent in the disaggregated approach, but complexity and the challenge of herding multiple partners through the integration process also creates a greater probability that the customers will get the applications at the performance levels they require – at least that’s the theory.

So what about Wi-Fi and its close relatives, such as MulteFire, operating on unlicensed/shared spectrum? Because of improved technology and network software with increased manageability, plus the boost it has enjoyed (in many territories) with the allocation of some or all of the 6 gigahertz spectrum block, some observers believe it can play an enhanced role in the enterprise too, perhaps taking on some of the applications currently marked down as requiring 5G. All agree that Wi-Fi not going to be pushed out by ‘private 5G’. 

But the inescapable problem with Wi-Fi is that the more users there are contending for the same chunk of public spectrum (even as it grows), the slower and more glitchy the experience. There are ways to improve performance, such as selective reduction in signal strength, directional transmission, more spectrum bands and so on. But while the problems can be tackled - and Wi-Fi performance has already improved enormously over the past few years - they can’t be solved completely, commenters for this story stress, which means Wi-Fi (or any other digital network technology running across public spectrum) will always be prone to interference of one kind or another, just as the applications they aim to serve become even more demanding.

Will the performance advantage of completely private spectrum sustain? Or will alternatives that don’t rely on it end up being good enough? We’ll need to come back in five years’ time to find out.

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