5G's Big Rollout: Private networks will deliver speed and security

By Claire Swedberg | Mar 15, 2023
Many of today’s business enterprises require more data speed, reliability and security than was imaginable decades ago. For those that need more security and power than they can get from Wi-Fi, the solution is cellular connectivity, and private cellular systems make that data network their own.




Many of today’s business enterprises require more data speed, reliability and security than was imaginable decades ago. For those that need more security and power than they can get from Wi-Fi, the solution is cellular connectivity, and private cellular systems make that data network their own.

In the past few years, private 5G cellular networks have been poised to replace 4G (or LTE) cellular and Wi-Fi or augment their existing capabilities by offering more reliability and security. A private cellular network is localized and dedicated to meet a business’s specific needs, offering high-speed, secure data management.

Currently, it’s a matter of industrial complexes and global manufacturers piloting or installing 5G networks, while in the long term, the technology may expand into retail, schools and other businesses. This transition is going to mean work for a fleet of technically knowledgeable installers and integrators, if they choose to become part of the building and servicing efforts.

Private LTE or 4G networks have been in use for about a decade. They provide the bandwidth (and latency) for many services that are higher and more dependable than some Wi-Fi systems. 

On the other hand, private 5G includes even faster data transmission and lower latency while managing many more devices within a specific space.

Two primary factors are creating the drive for private networks, said Leo Gergs, senior analyst for 5G markets at ABI Research. First, a rising number of national spectrum liberalization initiatives now allow enterprises access to the licensed mobile network spectrum without having to involve a communication service provider.

The Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) is a key example. In 2020, the Federal Communications Commission authorized full use of the 150 megahertz broadcast band for wireless service provider commercialization. Under these new rules, those using CBRS could deploy 5G networks without having to acquire licenses for that spectrum, which will ultimately reduce the cost of data transmissions.

The other driver is a healthy ecosystem of devices such as industrial­-grade chipsets that could be built into equipment to provide cellular connectivity. That may be lagging, however, when it comes to 5G where new chips and related devices are still delayed in manufacturing due to supply chain disruptions. The 2022 CHIPS and Science Act, which provides funding to boost U.S. semiconductor research and manufacturing, could prove beneficial.

That means 4G is a step ahead of 5G. When considering private networks that include both 4G and 5G, “What I’m seeing in terms of private cellular networks is that the industry is moving from proof-of-concept projects and evolving towards full commercial deployments,” Gergs said. “The testing period is done. Now its about implementing all that for the real-world environment.”

Using private networks to boost productivity

Companies using private cellular networks want to increase productivity and decrease cost on a site-by-site level, said Eric Walker, technical practice leader and network and edge/network practitioner for 5G SME at Kyndryl, New York. Years ago, Kyndryl began developing 5G private network technology in anticipation of the CBRS spectrum being released. 

“We deployed our first [5G] customer towards the end of 2020 and have deployed some other ones since,” he said.

Most private networks started in the utility and energy industry about a decade ago, and “by 2011, we had private networks really taking off in the manufacturing and industrial markets,” Walker said. There is no single solution or type of network for every company and application. “We approach everything by business problem or use case, and then we pick a technology, be it private cellular or Wi-Fi.”

Take the example of a distribution warehouse that’s started to use robotics to reduce labor demands. Robotics data doesn’t transfer as well on a Wi-Fi network, and because location and related real-time data is essential, the system might benefit from private cellular technology, especially 5G.

Private cellular can bring together a complicated variety of disparate technologies in use at a site. Some companies could have as many as 18 wireless protocols in use on a single site—creating wireless traffic at the local level that a private network could better manage. Companies that have already adopted private 5G networks have seen productivity increases. This likely means other companies will follow with their own private networks in order to compete. 

“If your competitors have a 25% or 30% cost advantage over you,” he said, change will become inevitable.

Connectivity is only the beginning. Once the data is being captured on the network, other components can be layered on: artificial intelligence (A.I.), machine learning and IT tools, for example, can take that data from the network and help companies make real-time decisions.

Contractors’ many roles

Kyndryl also offers managed services for the customers using its network tools, Walker said, which can be anything from manufacturing equipment to mission-critical devices and data related to them. “In an enterprise application, if a unit is down for 10 minutes, it could cost a company $10 million,” he said. 

Walker said contractors tend to provide such services for companies using Kyndryl’s technology. “Our objective is to partner with the best-of-breed contractors who are trained and have the skill sets that can help us on this end-to-end journey for the customer,” he said.

For electrical contractors seeking to have a role in 5G network deployments, they can upgrade their skill sets now, and most of the best ones already have done that in the integration and commissioning portion of the work, Walker said. The focus going forward will tend to be around understanding the customer’s private business. A new network will have to integrate into their existing system, and contractors or integrators will increasingly be part of that conversation.

“The cabling and getting that right is no less important,” he said.

For those interested in such cellular networks, learning 4G and 5G networking is a good way for a contractor to diversify their business. Contractors may almost be forced to expand and transition their business as these networks proliferate.

“I would say the sooner the better to learn and start transitioning [into cellular network installation and servicing], ultimately increasing the value of your business,” Walker said.

Similarly, a Qualcomm spokesperson indicated that 5G private networks will transform industries, including factories, ports and cities. Qualcomm points to its private Network RAN Automation technology, a cloud-based software solution to help companies deploy, monitor, optimize and provide automated RAN operations for private networks to deliver 5G potential.

Dow’s private cellular network

Installations are already in place at some of the largest enterprises. In a 12-month period, Kyndryl and Nokia, Dallas, developed a private cellular network proof-of-concept and turned it into a full-scale deployment at The Dow Chemical Co.’s 1 million-square-foot chemical manufacturing complex in Freeport, Texas, according to Jason Jackson, Kyndryl’s CTO for industrial sector clients. The company raised four poles around the plant, each with an intelligent radio core operating in CBRS band. Kyndryl then used Nokia’s wireless device control system to register devices and manage wireless endpoints as a network.

Once the team established stable connectivity on test devices, Kyndryl and Dow implemented an “identity and access management solution.” It includes firewalls from Palo Alto Networks, Santa Clara, Calif., and Nokia’s Digital Automation Cloud.

Dow was able “to accelerate the delivery of wireless solutions and roll out updates across devices within each profile, whenever needed,” Jackson said.

In the first four months following the launch, the plant completed more than 28,000 digital procedures, “reducing the time it takes workers to complete operations and maintenance activities and increasing worker safety,” he said.

The Freeport site covers 40 production plants, each with “thousands of mechanical components,” across more than 50 square kilometers of Brazoria County.

“Private networks can be especially useful for industrial environments where Wi-Fi connectivity may be spotty and difficult to deploy,” Jackson said. They mitigate black spots, for example, where the signal is too weak or unstable to maintain connectivity.

 The private wireless deployment has enabled augmented reality applications, remote audio and video collaboration for workers and better employee safety.

“When it comes to savings, the total cost of ownership of private networks is considerably lower than traditional wireless networks, and enables enterprises to better prioritize operational costs and remain agile with faster deployment of applications,” Jackson said.

Overcoming technology delays

In the meantime, the cellular industry is awaiting more 5G hardware to enable the expected adoption, globally, similar to deployments like that at Dow.

“They need more chip manufacturers to get on board,” Gergs said, with producing the industrial-grade chipsets for 5G.

So for now, mostly small rollouts and testing and piloting are underway. In years past, ABI Research forecast the inflection point between 4G and 5G would be in 2027–2028, Gergs said. The delay in chipsets and the device ecosystem not maturing means “we’re talking about 2030 now.”

The value chain for these networks still needs to be established, so there’s still much conceptual work ahead.

For companies relying on Wi-Fi, the question also centers around cost—cellular connectivity is still more expensive to deploy than Wi-Fi, so companies’ management has to consider the value proposition.

In the meantime, for electrical contractors, the question of who will install and integrate the systems is still coming into focus, Gergs said. Technology applications “will still need to solidify, to answer the question of who would actually deploy those private networks.” He added that “it’s mostly going to be indirect channels through a system integrator. When you talk about the manufacturing and industrial deployments, channel partners that have industry-specific knowledge and also the trust of industrial enterprises” will provide much of the needed installation and servicing.

Header Image: shutterstock / gomolach / / James Thew 

About The Author

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at [email protected].





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