What’s the deal with mobile private networks?
Mobile private networks are currently a hot topic in the technology space having emerged in the last 2-3 years due to the availability of spectrum and lightweight core software. They enable exciting new opportunities for a wide range of organisations, from manufacturing to healthcare. Offering security due to the fact they use uncontested spectrum, they give organisations full control of service quality and devices and enable wide area coverage across both indoors and outdoors if needed, says Mike Kennett, senior consultant and head of regulatory affairs at connectivity infrastructure-as-a-service provider Freshwave.
This year Mobile World Congress saw a big presence from new players in mobile such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft, as they will be facilitators and suppliers of adaptable mobile private network services. As is often the case with new technologies, different organisations may use their own preferred terminology for much the same thing: private 4G, private 5G, private networks, private LTE, campus networks, private mobile networks or private cellular networks. I’ll use mobile private network as it encompasses both 4G and 5G and its acronym, MPN, is widely used.
Do I need 4G or 5G?
Companies thinking about an MPN for the first time may think they need to go straight to a 5G network, however 4G technology is often sufficient for the current needs of many businesses. And it’s significantly cheaper than 5G as there is a much wider range of products available. 4G is also adequate for many other use cases such as push-to-talk over cellular, predictive maintenance and even augmented reality.
5G technology is nevertheless essential for use cases where low latency is needed, such as virtual reality, robotics and remotely controlled vehicles. Or where there simply isn’t enough 4G spectrum available locally.
You’ve probably heard the expression Industry 4.0 used in connection with MPNs as it’s a common use case cited when looking at the benefits they can bring. The near real time communication between systems that 5G enables allows manufacturing under previously unheard-of conditions. At Bosch’s Stuttgart-Feuerbach factory in Germany, for example, they’re working with Nokia and using a 5G MPN for applications such as autonomous transport systems. The ActiveShuttle moves autonomously over the shop floor, avoids people and vehicles, bypasses storage boxes, steers toward the production line, stops, unloads its freight, and sets off again.
But to the earlier point about 4G MPNs also empowering digital transformation, in the UK Virgin Media O2 Business and British Sugar have created the first multi-site 4G MPN which is being used to automate the manufacturing process for sugar and other co-products. Part of this will be relying on artificial intelligence to monitor operations in real time and predict maintenance and potential downtime in advance. This reduces disruption, cuts down on wastage and can deliver cost and energy savings. The network has been designed to be future-ready and easily upgradable to 5G where necessary, as British Sugar looks to introduce more complex processes that will benefit from the higher speeds and lower latency of 5G.
In some manufacturing environments significant benefits can be achieved simply by using an MPN to replace physical cabling, without changing the existing application. An MPN gives the customer the flexibility to reconfigure a factory quickly and easily without expensive re-cabling, so using an MPN for cable replacement can be a quick win in the migration to Industry 4.0.
The key to all of this is to start with the business requirements, not whatever the latest heavily hyped technology may be.
Spectrum options for mobile private networks
The Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) has identified 58 countries and territories with MPN deployments, or where private network spectrum licences suitable for LTE or 5G have been assigned. There are also MPN installations in various offshore locations serving the oil, gas and renewable energy industries, as well as on ships.
Spectrum is essential for any MPN but due to the fact that the type and availability differ from country to country, many vendors have been reluctant to develop equipment for the upper n77 band in particular. However in December 2021 the European Community mandated the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT) to assess harmonisation of this band across the EU, which should help influence vendor product roadmaps.
In the USA the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) is 150 MHz of spectrum and allows organisations to use the 3.5 to 3.7 GHz radio spectrum to build wireless networks based on 4G and 5G technologies. It’s divided into three tiers to help prevent interference and each tier must accept interference from the one above it:
- Incumbent users: this mainly includes the Navy and commercial fixed satellite stations. Nothing is allowed to interfere with this tier.
- Priority access license (PAL) users: those users, such as commercial businesses, that purchase spectrum licenses at the CBRS PALs auctions.
- General authorised access (GAA) users: unlicensed spectrum that users can access for free.
In the UK, there are three relevant local licence types, all issued by Ofcom.
- Shared access licences (SALs) use non-mobile network operator (MNO) spectrum in four dedicated bands: Two LTE bands, the upper n77 5G band, and a mmWave band.
- Local access licences (LALs) use MNO spectrum but need specific approval from the relevant MNO, so they usually take longer to arrange. They are also more expensive than SALs. As of August this year there were only 30 in the UK. It’s advisable to work with a partner who has an established relationship with the MNOs as this can smooth the spectrum application process.
- Innovation and trial licences are a good option for pre-commercial networks and are issued on a non-permanent, non-commercial basis.
MPNs are here now and already providing business benefits. Depending on the customer requirements, readily available 4G technology (with an upgrade path to 5G) is often sufficient to have a positive impact on a business and drive digital transformation. Whether a port or a production line, hospital or hedge fund firm, the security, guaranteed service quality, capacity and control an MPN allows makes them a platform for assured connectivity and all the innovation that enables.
The author is Mike Kennett, senior consultant and head of regulatory affairs at connectivity infrastructure-as-a-service provider Freshwave.