There has been a small but meaningful trickle of news on private wireless (cellular) network deployments over the last couple of years. These come from a cast of characters ranging from CSPs to equipment vendors, SIs, and enterprises themselves. The latest CBRS auction has also uncovered likely new entrants, including companies that lack their own cellular networks or want to own and manage their own deployments.
Interest in providing private wireless networks is not new – after all this is essentially what WiFi has been providing all along. But using 4G LTE and 5G (over licensed, unlicensed or “lightly regulated” spectrum) for these networks is creating excitement from a wide swath of the telecom market. Will companies buy it?
GlobalData has been tracking the private wireless network market for several years because it is potentially a major disruptive technology. It promises to partially displace WiFi and wireline connectivity – at least for those use cases that need more consistent signal strength, security, higher speeds, and lower latency, with support for in-building, campus and hybrid environments such as manufacturing facilities, warehouses, sports stadiums, mines, oil and gas fields, ports, airports, and other transportation hubs.
Each of the key stakeholders offering solutions for the private network market offers some unique capabilities
- CSPs – Tier 1 mobile operators have been deploying private 4G LTE, and more recently, trialing 5G in enterprise buildings and campuses. Some private network services have been productized, such as Vodafone’s Mobile Private Network, which promises secure, private reserve capacity that is walled off from the public network, leverages distributed MEC as well as on-premise edge compute, and is pitched as ideal for ultra low latency use cases and support of high connection density IoT. Other operators are also seeing traction in ports, hospitals and manufacturing facilities. Deutsche Telekom and Ericsson, for example, launched a service for industrial campuses in 2019 and chemical manufacturer BASF and others are trialing their technology.
- Mobile Infrastructure Vendors – Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei have been publically providing private wireless networks, often in partnership with their operator customers, and/or, in the case of Nokia, also selling directly to enterprises while offering infrastructure equipment, security, edge computing and software platforms for device and application management. Nokia appears to be leading the pack in this segment, with 180 private networks deployed. Most customers still use 4G but more recent deals focus on 5G, including use of 5G SA to add performance, capacity and latency benefits.
- Enterprise Network Equipment Vendors – Cisco, HPE and other network equipment providers remain tied to WiFi, which is not a bad position to be in since it is well proven and widely deployed in buildings and campuses. WiFi service providers such as Boingo are also seeing traction in stadiums and other in-building deployments. The question is will WiFi 6 be as effective as 5G in supporting the next generation of use cases? The operators and infrastructure vendors argue that not only is cellular better for mobile use cases, but 5G will more ably support the real-time ultra-low latency use cases and support for massive IoT that are key for industry 4.0. In all probability, most deployments will use multiple technologies.
- New Entrants – Wireline operators and cable companies have been providing services based on fiber, coax, Ethernet, and WiFi for businesses for a long time. But the recent bids for CBRS spectrum licenses show that the market for mid-band cellular spectrum, which performs well in-building and outside dense urban areas, is sought out by many providers. Many of the CBRS license winners will augment existing coverage or use the spectrum to provide fixed wireless broadband for consumers. But others seek to use it to enhance their enterprise capabilities, in particular in providing wireless private networks. Many enterprises and a few utilities also bid on this spectrum and will be deploying their own networks. CBRS specialists such as Federated Wireless, which offers a unique spectrum as a service model, represent yet a new breed of competition.
Enterprises generally need help with many aspects of private network deployments, whether they acquire their own spectrum or not, so they will be looking for partners.
Not only can they go to the vendors above but they may also be aligned with IT services companies and system integrators who can help with design, deployment and ongoing managed services. This is another reason why the private wireless network market won’t be limited to mobile operators or even their infrastructure providers, as it appears to hold much opportunity for many different players.