The transformation of the enterprise into a connectivity-driven ecosystem has introduced radically new challenges for every industry vertical. Whether it is a factory, farm or mining environment, there is a common need to provide bespoke wireless networks that cater to an ever-increasing volume and diversity of connected devices.
With private enterprise networks based on 4G LTE and 5G NR, the goal is to eliminate the connectivity void left by Wi-Fi, Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) and public mobile networks.
In doing so, this creates new opportunities for mobile operators, neutral hosts and equipment vendors alike to exploit a trifecta of licensed, unlicensed and shared spectrum for the purpose of resilient, scalable and end-to-end private cellular networks.
There is also an emerging reality in which enterprises themselves will, in parallel to the traditional solution providers, develop custom and autonomous networks that bypass the middleman. The allure of a wholly independent cellular solution is that it can cost-effectively fulfil extremely niche requirements.
The Downfalls of Wi-Fi, DAS and Public Mobile Networks
In order to understand why private enterprise networks represent an alternative and, indeed, a complementary solution to traditional connectivity networks, we must first examine the downfalls of the latter.
It is key, however, to consider that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for the enterprise and each industry vertical exhibits wildly different connectivity requirements.
Wi-Fi, along with ethernet, are and will remain the dominant solutions for LAN in the enterprise. Thanks to a rich device ecosystem, combined with the relative ease of deployment and operation, these solutions have propelled enterprises of every size into the era of on-demand connectivity.
Nonetheless, coverage and mobility issues have plagued Wi-Fi deployments in the past, and these are issues of significant magnitude for industry verticals that require a large coverage area. Precision configuration is required to maximise the performance of a network of Wi-Fi Access Points (APs) and to minimise Radio Frequency (RF) interference.
While the security of Wi-Fi has advanced considerably in recent years with newer protocols, so too has the sophistication of cyberattacks. Any device on the enterprise network can be compromised and weaponised to intercept network transmissions. The creation of rogue Wi-Fi APs which appear to be legitimate has also increased in prevalence.
Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) in the enterprise have been deployed and used for quite some time now. These solutions can provide enhanced coverage and capacity by exploiting a distribution system (active, passive, hybrid and digital) to distribute a high-quality signal. In sporting and music venues, DAS is extremely prolific.
However, the cost of deploying a DAS solution is prohibitive for many enterprises. This is especially true with active DAS, a type of distribution system which leverages fibre optic and ethernet cabling to achieve high performance over longer distances.
In addition to cost, the lack of upgradeability associated with DAS is a problem for the enterprise. There is often a need for physical replacement of base stations and modification of the radio heads, necessitating intervention by a technician.
Beyond Wi-Fi and DAS, the traditional status-quo has been for enterprises to use the existing public mobile network for connectivity. While this may have been a somewhat viable solution in the past, there has been a paradigm shift in the make-up of wireless networks, which are now exploiting mid and high-bands to maximise capacity.
This shift means that indoor and cross-campus signal quality on the macro network will deteriorate very rapidly as a result of signal attenuation from walls and even low emissivity glass. There will be little bandwidth available and poor quality of service, and the strain caused by these cell-edge users is likely to adversely impact performance over the cell’s wider coverage footprint.
The time is now for Private Enterprise Networks
Spectrum, or a lack thereof, has inhibited the development of private cellular networks in the past. Mobile operators and WISPs have held the vast majority of licensed spectrum assets for some time now, and technologies such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth have occupied increasingly congested spectrum in unlicensed bands.
But this is changing as spectrum policy undergoes transformation across the world, introducing entirely new and dynamically shared mediums such as CBRS in the US. There is now an increasing focus on making spectrum access affordable so as to accrue a larger number of winning bidders across many different regions.
In Germany, for example, the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology (BMWi) has made private 5G licenses available in a portion of the 3.7-3.8 GHz band. Notably, this was not an auction process and the country has sought to use private enterprise networks as a competitive differentiator in the quest for continued economic growth. Companies such as Siemens and Bosch applied for the licenses.
The exorbitant cost of on-site cellular equipment has also been a barrier to the deployment of private enterprise networks in the past. But, in a similar fashion to spectrum, change is afoot. Small cells have emerged as a low-cost solution to provide localised coverage and capacity in the enterprise.