Private 5G networks are already one of the most hyped tech phrases of 2022. But how many production 5G private networks are actually out there?
EE Times examined the progress of 5G private networks in January 2021 and found that the vast majority of networks deployed were in the trial phase. This is still largely the case in 2022, according to analyst Dean Bubley, founder of Disruptive Analysis.
“[It’s] Hard to judge how many ‘proper’ 5G networks have been deployed, and also depends on your definition,” Bubley told EE Times. Many of the 5G private deployments already out there include academic and testbed networks, Bubley notes. The analyst also questions whether the private networks deployed include non-standalone (NSA) versions “with a 4G core anchor, or… ‘proper’ 5G with a [standalone] core?”
“Overall, I’d say it’s very early days for ‘production’ enterprise 5G,” Bubley stated, adding, “I’d be surprised if there were more than 50 actual in-use networks (probably including some of the vendors’ own factories). But there’s probably a few hundred trials & semi-commercial projects of various sizes.”
Bubley notes, however, that “there may also be quite a lot more in China, which I have less visibility on.”
As for the rest of the world, it’s a mix of Germany, the UK, Japan, Finland, Taiwan, and a few others for 5G, Bubley says. 4G LTE and Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS) private networks are being rolled out in the U.S., with some 5G being trialed and likely to be more important this year, the analyst expects.
4G on top for private networks
In comparison, there are many more 4G LTE private networks deployed across the world, with many of these deployed for indoor phone connectivity, IoT tasks, critical communications, and other functions. This is not surprising, since the roots of modern 4G private networking started in 2013.
“There are 1000-2000 ‘proper’ private 4G networks for enterprise, government/military, maritime, [and] temporary use,” the analyst stated. “It’s very hard to gauge accurate numbers as many users don’t talk much publicly.”
Industry sectors like oil and mining were quick to latch onto private networking as a means to provide cellular access, facilitate emergency connections, and simplify day-to-day operations. Bubley points out that these economic spheres are “special” and will frequently make radio spectrum licensing deals with local operators to get the bandwidth they need.
Access is the key
Unfettered access to spectrum is crucial to a corporation, or any other organization, that wants to institute its own cellular space. In the U.S., the recent release of CBRS spectrum (3550 MHz to 3700 MHz) has made bandwidth access easier for individual enterprises, as well as for service providers that cater specifically to corporations by providing fast deployment of private networks with optimized architectures.
Amazon started to offer enterprise customers a “turnkey” method to rollout a private network late last year. The vendor says it will enable private networking on 4G LTE, CBRS, and 5G via its AWS arm. In its FAQ, Amazon says, that “AWS Private 5G” uses CBRS for the service in the U.S.
Comcast has just revealed that it is entering into the private networking business, deploying a private CBRS system at the Wells Fargo Center in the first quarter of 2022. Comcast spent $495 million to acquire 830 Priority Access Licenses (PAL) across the country.
Dish, another major winner in the PAL CBRS auction, is planning to launch private networking for enterprises as it rolls out its 5G network in the U.S. The operator is different from many of the entrants into the 5G private network market since it is deploying a greenfield, standalone 5G network across the states. Dish is planning to launch its first 5G market in Las Vegas in the first quarter of 2022. Obviously, it will need to deploy more large metro markets before it can snare additional enterprise customers, but Dish says it has traction with business customers already.
All the major mobile operators in the U.S. are busily promoting their private 5G networking efforts in 2022.
A worldwide enterprise
Europe, rather than America, may be the major focus for 5G private networking in 2022. For instance, France and Germany have just announced that that they are pledging €17.7 million ($20 million) for four collaborative projects using 5G.
Volkswagen is working with Nokia to deploy a standalone 5G network at its massive HQ in Wolfsburg, Germany. Vodafone is deploying a similar private 5G network for Porsche at its Weissach Development Center in Deutschland.
Japanese operator NTT has released a survey that interviewed 216 technology executives about their plans for private 5G networks going forward. It found that half plan to implement a private 5G network within 6 to 24 months.
Clearly with the widespread arrival of standalone 5G, as well as CBRS, 5G private networking is gathering speed the world over. 2022 will be a year when several large enterprise players deploy the technology, and many more test it out.
Amazon, Comcast, and Dish will be interesting new entrants into what is still, despite all hype, a very new market.
Analyst Bubley, meanwhile, predicts that the market will evolve further other the next few years. He anticipates that private networking represents at least 3, distinct sectors — indoor mobile phone installations, critical communications, and cloud/IT/IoT networks — which all have divergent needs.
He expects the sectors to start to overlap more in the next 18 months or so. With critical comms supporting more IT-like applications, “some enterprise private cellular networks will examine adding neutral-host and inbound roaming or interconnect from public MNOs’ subscribers,” Bubley writes.
Other semi-private models, such as outdoor neutral host networks that sell capacity wholesale to MNOs, will likely arise. The sky’s the limit as far as hybrids and spin-offs of private networking go.