The trifecta of shared spectrum, edge computing and small cells are acting as a breeding ground for the creation of private wireless networks. Industry verticals, from mining to logistics, today require bespoke on-premise connectivity solutions to cater to the needs of an increasingly numerous and sophisticated array of Internet-enabled devices.
Enterprises’ fervent interest in this field is based on the pursuit of a cost-effective, secure and highly scalable wireless network that can complement existing WLAN solutions such as WiFi. In doing so, new use cases and applications can be unlocked, including those dependent on high bandwidth and low-latency.
In the United States, the completion of the CBRS auction last year represented a landmark milestone for private LTE and 5G, with lightly licensed spectrum made available on a shared basis to enterprises for the first time. Regulators across the world are moving swiftly to replicate this new spectrum policy, and commercial deployments are now visible across countries in Europe and Asia.
The Business Case for Private Wireless Networks
The business case for private wireless networks is founded on the need to fill the void left by existing solutions such as WiFi, DAS, public mobile and LMR/PMR networks. While each of these exhibits its own unique advantages, private LTE and 5G can enable and marry enhanced performance across the pillars of security, quality of service (QoS) and coverage.
Security, for example, may be improved through the employment of SIM technology, whereby device authentication is facilitated by the Secure Element embedded in the chip. This could be further augmented with eSIM, enabling subscribers to seamlessly transition between the private and public mobile network.
Meanwhile, enhanced QoS can be guaranteed with traffic management falling under the command of a mobile core network and the use of lightly licensed spectrum. The former provides for the optimisation of performance on a device and use case-specific basis, while the latter minimises the potential for interference problems that have traditionally plagued WiFi deployments.
At their most basic level, private LTE and 5G solutions shrink a mobile operator’s radio access network (RAN) and core network (EPC) into a smaller, tightly controlled area that is not accessible to public mobile subscribers. Importantly, the entity responsible for managing the network can be the enterprise itself or, alternatively, a contracted third-party such as a wireless operator or systems integrator.
Thanks to the employment of standard cellular mechanisms, inter-network mobility can be facilitated with ease between private LTE and the public RAN, as well as intra-network mobility within the enterprise itself.
Private LTE Middle-Men: Wireless Operators and Systems Integrators
The allure of enlisting an established wireless operator to design, build and manage a private enterprise network is that these companies already boast the expertise and technical know-how to deploy a suitable core network architecture and small cells. With CBRS, these operators can effectively lease PALs in a secondary market for enterprises too.
For instance, Verizon recently debuted “On Site LTE”, a new network platform based on the delivery of the aforementioned private network stack, complete with an EPC, remote monitoring and edge storage and compute functions (thanks to its partnership with Microsoft Azure). The solution can span all spectrum bands for LTE, including CBRS, and is aimed at businesses in sectors such as manufacturing, utilities, transportation and healthcare.
A similar solution has been developed by AT&T but, unlike Big Red, it did not participate in the CBRS auction. As a result, it is instead taking advantage of the general authorized access tier (GAA) to support enterprise networks. It offers its Multi-Access Edge Computing (MEC) proposition as part of this solution, thereby minimising the volume of traffic that needs to traverse public networks and enhancing both response times and security.
Despite these developments, wireless operators are by no means the only show in town when it comes to building and managing private LTE and 5G networks. In fact, many enterprises may consider their data highly sensitive and seek to manage operations privately in such a way as to ensure that operators are not privy to their data flows.
As such, systems integrators and MVNO-type providers can play an important role here, especially those that boast experience in the deployment of virtualized core networks and device management systems. These providers may offer a Network-as-a-Service (NaaS) model, and examples include BayFu, m3connect, Mugler and siticom.
Beyond the enhanced security and privacy that systems integrators bring to private LTE and 5G, these players boast other advantages too. Through global wholesale connectivity agreements, they can enable better mobility and mapping between local and virtual private networks, which permits devices within the private network to be securely used across public mobile networks.
Examining Private LTE in the Wild
Rio Tinto, an Anglo-Australian mining conglomerate, was one of the first large enterprises to deploy a commercial private LTE network at scale. The solution covers more than a dozen mines and other related facilities in Australia, including transport hubs and railways, for the purpose of supporting safety and production critical systems.
The network leverages spectrum in the 1800MHz band under a special arrangement from the local regulator and, thanks to an LTE core, it supports push-to-talk, unified communications and VoLTE. Use cases that have been enabled include high-precision GPS, intelligent earthmoving, telemetry and in-pit CCTV monitoring services.
Education institutions too have been eyeing private LTE for campus-wide connectivity, and the coronavirus pandemic has only served to underline the significant digital divide among students accessing their lessons remotely.
In the United States, a growing number of school districts are leveraging public funds through the CARES Act to finance CBRS-based networks where large concentrations of underserved students reside.
Examples of such initiatives can be found in the Fontana Unified and Patterson Unified schools districts, where CBRS antennas provide a supplementary coverage and capacity layer atop existing fixed and wireless networks. The initial Patterson network is already live with traffic being routed back to the district central office through its firewall, and the Fontana rollout will cover more than 36,000 students with 400 radios.
A similar deployment was recently announced by the Murray School District in Utah, consisting of 44 sites to cover its 6,000 students. Thanks to the implementation of traffic filtering on the network, inappropriate content is blocked and education-related services such as Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams and Zoom are prioritised on school-issued Chromebook devices.
Conclusion: The Enterprise is Ripe for Private LTE
The connectivity conundrum faced by enterprises big and small is real. As the number and complexity of devices grows at an exponential rate, there is a need for a new wireless solution that can combine enhanced coverage, capacity and mobility with breakthrough security and configurable QoS.
Private LTE ticks these boxes and many more, providing a scalable and highly interoperable platform that can be augmented with edge computing to cater to a wide array of low and high-priority use cases.