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Is Private 5G a Serious Option?

Almost every enterprise uses WiFi today, even in the absence of widespread support for the new WiFi 6 standard. Almost every enterprise uses current cellular services to support their mobile workers. Almost every enterprise has sensors and controllers in use for industrial process control, warehouse management, or building management and security. They’re continuing to invest in all of these areas, a general sign that they have no huge capabilities gap in need of filling.
Why, then, are we hearing so much about private 5G? Many 5G proponents are earnestly suggesting that the real opportunity for 5G may be the enterprise, with companies that will use unlicensed spectrum and 5G technology to build their own 5G networks. Are these companies simply grasping at total-addressable-market straws, or does private 5G have some real potential?
A lot of companies pitched on the concept of private 5G have come away with the perception that the goal is to be their own cellular provider. Vendors tell me that trying to push past this early view, which most enterprises reject out of hand, is difficult. The problem, of course, is that most people (including enterprise planners) have heard neither a full definition of private 5G nor a mission statement for it.
Let’s start by saying that using private 5G for “cellular service” could make sense for some applications. Suppose you have very large, dispersed facilities located in areas where public cellular services are sparse. WiFi voice could be a partial solution, particularly if your cellular provider offers Voice over LTE over WiFi, but what if you want voice/data within your facilities and don’t care about roaming outside?
Net: It’s possible, but it’s not an enormous opportunity for vendors. The big opportunity for private 5G may lie in the same place as the big opportunity for new public 5G revenue — meaning, millimeter wave.
Millimeter wave 5G has two advantages over mobile 5G as a foundation for private 5G. The first is that it has a very clear mission that we’ll get to in a minute. The second is that it dodges the biggest technical challenge of 5G, which is its dependence on unlicensed spectrum.
Most people are familiar with the notion of millimeter wave (mmWave) 5G as a hybrid technology that combines with fiber to the node (FTTN) to create a wireless alternative to DSL that can deliver serious broadband speeds (100Mbps up to perhaps 1Gbps in some areas). For enterprises, this means they could use private 5G to deliver high-speed broadband over distances up to as much as a couple miles, without running wires or fiber.
This is a whole different mission, something enterprise planners get very easily. Distributed facilities often have issues with uniform high-quality broadband distribution, and private 5G mmWave technology could offer that for most of them. Even where distances are greater than the range of mmWave transmission, it would be possible to install a repeater node to send traffic along a multihop path to more distant sites. You could cover hundreds of square miles. Sure, your primary hop’s capacity would be depleted along the way, but many sites at the end of the train of hops would still have quality broadband.
The range limitations of mmWave 5G aren’t all disadvantages, either. Because the range is short, it’s less likely that somebody else will grab the same chunk of unlicensed spectrum as you do. The available mmWave spectrum varies by country, of course, but there’s generally more unlicensed spectrum available in the mmWave band than in the bands used for commercial mobile 5G services.
Another nice thing about the mmWave mission for private 5G is that it actually fits applications like IoT and even onsite mobile services. If you have the right radio in it, you can use your device with mmWave. If you want your device to offer mobile service, you can add in lightweight 5G radio access network, registration, and mobility control and pair it with a handset that supports the right frequencies. You can squirt a broadband trunk to a remote building and connect all the IoT sensors and controllers there using WiFi (even WiFi 6), and you can even add a mmWave modem to an IoT element that’s way out in your facility boondocks, or is moving around.
I asked a dozen enterprises about this particular flavor of private 5G, and every one of them said they could see applications for it. But none of them had ever been pitched on it, even though about three quarters said they’d heard spiels on private 5G from vendors, cloud providers, or both.
Private 5G could lead to real benefits, then. But the hype risk is enormous; ironically, the vendors seem to be the ones suffering from it. Are vendors believing the general media hype and not doing a real benefit analysis for 5G, failing to prepare their product lines for a mission that my limited survey says is 100% credible? It sure looks like it.
If you’re an enterprise that has any facilities that are distributed over an area of a mile or less in diameter, you’re a private mmWave 5G prospect and that’s all there is to it. If you have larger facilities, you may be as well, and once you can justify mmWave 5G, it’s an easy step from there to a realistic and futuristic private 5G application set.