VMO2 Business unveils plug-and-play 5G SA private network

Sandeep Raithatha from Virgin Media O2 Business with the portable private network.

Sandeep Raithatha from Virgin Media O2 Business with the portable private network.

  • The enterprise services division of UK operator Virgin Media O2 has spied an opportunity for ad hoc private networks
  • It has developed a plug-and-play 5G standalone private network system
  • Nokia is its technology partner

Virgin Media O2 Business, the enterprise arm of the UK communications service provider, has launched what it claims is the country’s first portable plug-and-play 5G standalone (SA) network that companies can deploy “in minutes”, according to Sandeep Raithatha (pictured above), the operator’s head of strategy, innovation and 5G IoT.  

The network-in-a-box product comprises the core, radio access network software, small cells and supporting edge IT platform, all of which come from the operator’s vendor partner Nokia, plus devices and SIM cards, and the system is automated enough that it doesn’t require network engineers to set up and manage the network, according to Raithatha. VMO2 Business is also working with other vendor partners to make more devices compatible with the system (5G standalone deployments are still the exception rather than the rule, and 5G SA connectivity is currently not natively supported by many smartphones and other devices already in use). 

Importantly, the system does require access to mains power – this is not a system that runs off a generator, so while it is definitely portable, its deployment options are limited to electricity grid access. If backhaul is required for any external network connectivity, this could be enabled using a 5G router, according to Raithatha.

And this isn’t a product that is still in development – it is already commercially available and has already been tried and tested since last summer by startup companies located at the London offices of Wayra, which is the startup incubator arm of Telefónica (one of Virgin Media O2’s joint owners). 

Raithatha says the product is aimed at all types and sizes of companies, and can be used as a temporary private 5G network for companies that need secure mobile communications in a specific location for a short period of time, or by companies that want to check out the potential of a private 5G SA network and/or want to develop and test applications that are specifically designed for 5G private network deployments. 

One such company is Mobilus Labs, which is based at Wayra’s London office: It is developing products that use advanced voice technology to enable industrial teams in sectors such as manufacturing and construction to communicate in environments with extreme noise (at 85 decibels or more). Other companies have used the setup to trial virtual reality and internet of things (IoT) applications. 

Such use cases are possible because the VMO2 Business product comprises not just the networking elements but also an edge computing platform that enables local data processing without the need to connect to an external datacentre.  

That’s going to be a big part of the marketing message from VMO2 Business as it tries to get UK businesses interested in the system, which they would need to do via regular sales channels (there isn’t an online request-and-order option for this product).

And, currently at least, this is very much a VMO2 Business product for the UK market and not something that has been developed in partnership with parent company Telefónica – though it’s hard to imagine that such a product won’t be on offer in other markets where private network spectrum is available to enterprises. 

- Ray Le Maistre, Editorial Director, TelecomTV