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Is there a private 5G network in your company's future?

5G mobile wireless network technology
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The benefits of 5G networks for smartphone users are many (e.g., faster downloads, more capacity in congested areas, fewer dropped connections, lower latency for gaming and interactive apps, ability to do AR/VR, etc.). Mobile workers can benefit greatly from their use of 5G. But it’s unclear if companies can take full advantage of 5G’s ability to increase the connectivity of workers within company facilities and/or campus settings.

Standard carrier offerings may not do what’s needed, especially for mission critical enclosed, remote, and/or highly regulated environments like manufacturing floors, warehouses, chemical plants, medical facilities, shipping yards, etc. Many of these locations may not get adequate commercial 5G coverage to meet their needs, as in building coverage, particularly in large industrial buildings, may not be adequate. And even if they do, they may not get the full level of required services enterprises need which are different than typical consumer level services.

A viable alternative to 5G
However, companies will soon have be a viable alternative. One of the capabilities that newer versions of 5G bring to market is something called 5G NR-U, which stands for New Radio-Unlicensed. It essentially takes all of the capabilities of 5G and makes them available to non-licensed users in a localized business setting, similar to the capabilities of commercial network operators of consumer services.

Commercial carriers have to operate their 5G networks on licensed frequencies for which they have to pay the government a substantial sum of money. They also have to deploy many radio towers and base stations at regular intervals to offer complete coverage for all users who roam widely.

The needed investment in equipment is high, especially when you take into account the amount of equipment needed. This requires that commercial carriers have a high volume of users to generate revenues. But NR-U makes the possibility of private 5G networks possible as there are no upfront expenses for licenses so the business model does not require huge numbers of users. Rather, the payback for this class of service is in how it can make a company more efficient in its operations or offer improved mission critical capabilities.

Much like WiFi 6 does, 5G NR-U uses unlicensed spectrum, either at 5 GHz or 6 GHz currently and will likely add the 60 GHz band in the future. The spectrum can easily be shared between WiFi and 5G unlicensed networks, as there is more than 1200MHz of bandwidth at the 6 GHz band to work with. 5G NR-U requires a much smaller radio than commercial 5G equipment, as its power is limited by the regulations for unlicensed use. With its low operating power resulting in small access point radios, it is much like WiFi in coverage, power requirements and space requirements, and will eventually be similar in cost in outfitting the networking equipment.

Private 5G network vs. WiFi
5G capability offers a number of features that WiFi does not. Since it will run a 5G network core similar to what the carriers do in their commercial environments, its offers a wide array of management and security functions not available on WiFi. Connected devices have to be approved to work on the network, much like your smartphone is with its SIM card.

The network bandwidth and services can be deployed uniquely by device, user or location with such “network slicing” providing “just what you need” connectivity options for things like IoT.

5G offers an extremely low latency option which is critical for real time needs like safety equipment on machine tools or health monitoring equipment. It offers better coverage as well with its ability to have directed antennas and formed beams of signals (a capability partially shared with newer generations of WiFi).

5G also has a superior security model, making it very difficult to hack thereby preventing mission critical devices from being attacked and/or damaged. Future enhancements will include precision location services, particularly important for autonomous vehicles and warehousing/shipping applications or asset tracking solutions.

Finally, the potential for industrial grade reliability and latency built into the 5G spec (URLLC – ultra reliable low latency communications) make it attractive in mission critical and time sensitive uses like power plants, process equipment, chemical plants, machine safety monitoring, etc.

Downside of 5G
The downside of 5G is that it does require a fairly significant core network management facility to function. But much of the core network capability is being virtualized by today’s commercial deployments, and that capability can easily be used to configure and manage private networks as well.

The capability for 5G NR-U core will most often be deployed as a cloud-based service, except in those companies that require full behind the firewall control of all network aspects. Indeed, expect that the majority of private 5G networks will be managed as a service, often by the commercial carriers who already have the expertise, and view this as an additional revenue opportunity.

Expect to see 5G NR-U equipment become available later this year with more available the first half of 2021. Key suppliers of WiFi and especially 5G infrastructure will create networking equipment that should be small in size and easily deployable, similar to enterprise-grade WiFi access points currently available.

Expect most of the same vendors that produce WiFi chips and/or 5G chips currently (e.g., Qualcomm, Broadcom, MediaTek) will start producing 5G NR-U chips for OEMS of access equipment such as Cisco Meraki, HP Aruba, Netgear, Samsung and other WiFi equipment makers, as well as downsized access points produced by traditional 5G commercial equipment makers like Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, Huawei, etc.

Bottom line
Within the next 1-2 years, many companies will be able to take advantage of the capabilities inherent in 5G NR-U. Some will decide to deploy and manage their own systems, but many will outsource the deployments, and the most likely vendors of such “5G as a Service” models will be the commercial carriers (e.g., AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Vodafone, DT, etc.).

Many companies are still on older, outdated WiFi networks and are looking to upgrade over the next 1-2 years to the latest technology (WiFi 6). But in determining the best approach, consideration of 5G NR-U in each company’s particular circumstances should be evaluated.

Expect WiFi, especially WiFi 6, to coexist with 5G NR-U and neither will be a superior solution for all circumstances. In fact I expect many companies to deploy both technologies. But 5G NR-U does offer some unique capabilities that should be evaluated if your operations could benefit from the capabilities discussed above.