Enterprises, government agencies, and educational institutions are seeking to enhance their existing on-premises Wi-Fi networks with private wireless 5G and 4G LTE cellular technology. This is due to a variety of reasons, including reliable, low-latency connectivity, long-range outdoor coverage, predictable network behavior, granular control over applications and devices, and the increasing number of connected devices.
A private network is a dedicated wireless communication system set up exclusively for a single organization, isolated with its own resources, hardware, and spectrum. It ensures secure connectivity for the organization’s users, devices, and applications, barring external connections to the network.
Dgtl Infra delves deeper into the evolving domain of private networks, which represents one of the most promising uses cases for 5G, particularly from a business-to-business (B2B) perspective. From exploring the types and examples of private networks, to understanding the benefits and identifying key providers of private 5G networks, this article is packed with essential information. Keep reading to understand the future of private network connectivity, which involves a combination of unlicensed, licensed, and lightly licensed spectrum.
What is a Private Network?
A private network, also known as a private wireless network, is a localized, dedicated communication system set up for the exclusive use of a single organization, and is isolated physically or virtually with dedicated resources, including hardware and spectrum. This type of network provides secure and reliable connectivity to an organization’s users, devices, and applications, ensuring external devices cannot connect to the network.
Private networks have priority or dedicated access to spectrum, leading to better control and management over network resources. As a result, organizations can more effectively distribute spectrum, allocate bandwidth, regulate data traffic flow, manage end user devices, and collect and analyze their proprietary data.
Private networks utilize various wireless technologies, such as Wi-Fi, 4G LTE, and 5G, to deliver broadband service, depending on the specific requirements of the organization. These networks are used by organizations including enterprises, government agencies, and educational institutions, in various settings such as factories, warehouses, power plants, mines, offshore oil rigs, ports, hospitals, airports, shopping malls, convention centers, casinos, sports stadiums, university campuses, and smart cities.
To provide wireless coverage and capacity for organizations, private networks are typically built with radio access nodes in the form of small cells. As an example, Amazon Web Services (AWS) indicates that a small cell deployment of five nodes can cover 10,000 square feet both indoors and outdoors, which is suitable for many venues. However, larger sites requiring wide-area coverage may necessitate the use of macro cell towers.
Market Size for Private Networks
Globally, there are approximately 1,000 private network deployments, using a combination of 4G LTE and 5G technology, many of which are pilot programs. While global revenue currently remains small at less than $2 billion, Verizon expects a global total addressable market (TAM) for private networks of $10 billion by 2025. In comparison, DISH Network, an emerging wireless carrier in the United States, is even more optimistic, expecting private networks to be a $30 billion revenue opportunity by 2025.
Types of Private Networks
There are several types of private networks, each designed to serve specific needs and use cases. They can be classified by the kind of spectrum they use: unlicensed, licensed, and lightly licensed (or shared).
- Unlicensed: Wi-Fi networks
- Licensed: cellular networks, including 4G LTE and 5G
- Lightly Licensed (Shared): Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) networks
All of these types of private networks utilize wireless technologies and are considered alternatives for organizations to employing wired communication mediums, such as Industrial Ethernet. Simultaneously, these private networks also serve as alternatives to solely relying on public cellular networks provided by wireless carriers.
Below we detail the main types of private networks currently being deployed: Wi-Fi, cellular (4G LTE and 5G), and CBRS.
Wi-Fi – Unlicensed
Wi-Fi is a wireless networking technology that allows devices to connect to the internet or communicate with one another using unlicensed spectrum, primarily operating in the 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and 6 GHz frequency bands. It is the most commonly used private networking technology for enterprises and consumers, connecting various environments such as offices, homes, and schools.
Although Wi-Fi is effective in many situations, it has limitations in coverage area and scalability compared to cellular networks due to power constraints and challenges in handling heavy traffic loads. Additionally, since Wi-Fi operates in unlicensed frequency bands, it suffers from greater interference because a higher concentration of devices share the same limited frequency ranges.
Wi-Fi is the least expensive private networking option, as there are no licensing costs involved unless it is anchored to licensed spectrum. However, it offers the lowest and most inconsistent quality of service (QoS) due to network congestion and interference.
Cellular – Licensed
Private cellular networks operate on licensed spectrum, independently of public cellular networks, and are based on wireless telecommunications standards such as 4G LTE or 5G. These systems are typically offered by wireless carriers, such as Verizon, who have exclusive access to licensed spectrum. Additionally, wireless communications service providers like Anterix deliver private 4G LTE networks for their customers, including utility companies, by holding licenses for the 900 MHz spectrum in the United States.
Private cellular networks, which utilize licensed spectrum, offer numerous advantages over Wi-Fi networks that employ unlicensed spectrum. Specifically, cellular networks are engineered for mobility, featuring handovers from private to public networks to ensure an uninterrupted connection, and connection reliability, including seamless failover to public networks in the event of an outage. These features make cellular networks indispensable for mission-critical enterprise applications.
Compared to Wi-Fi networks, cellular networks can operate at higher power levels, thereby ensuring coverage over larger areas. Additionally, cellular networks accommodate a greater number of devices and provide superior capacity, allowing the network to handle increased traffic loads more efficiently.
Private cellular networks are initially more expensive to build due to spectrum license fees and the costs of constructing the Radio Access Network (RAN) and core. However, these networks can be managed to guarantee strong quality of service (QoS). As such, enterprises frequently opt for private cellular networks when Wi-Fi networks have limitations that restrict their business requirements.
CBRS – Lightly Licensed / Shared
Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) is a lightly licensed (or shared) spectrum operating in the 3.5 GHz frequency band, allowing multiple users to access and share its 150 MHz of available bandwidth. More specifically, CBRS offers access control with three levels of use and priority:
- Incumbent users, such as the United States Navy and federal radar systems, hold the highest priority
- Priority Access License (PAL) holders are next in line, with a limit of 7 licenses per county
- General Authorized Access (GAA) users, who are unlicensed, can access portions of the spectrum when they are not occupied by incumbent users or Priority Access License (PAL) holders
Private networks are currently being built with CBRS as the primary spectrum band because of its ability to provide cost-effective, reliable, and secure wireless connectivity. Indoor venues are especially suitable for CBRS because of its ability to deliver improved capacity in areas with high demand, coupled with the spectrum band’s coverage limitations resulting from its low power levels.
CBRS offers the same security and reliability characteristics as a licensed cellular network, but offers significantly lower deployment costs than, for example, a traditional distributed antenna system (DAS) architecture. At the same time, CBRS deployment costs are on par with building an unlicensed Wi-Fi network. These features make CBRS spectrum well-suited for enterprise and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) use cases.
Overall, CBRS delivers a higher quality of service (QoS) than unlicensed networks, offering better QoS even without a Priority Access License (PAL) due to its access control mechanisms. However, CBRS delivers low power levels and small license sizes, which limit its ability to provide coverage relative to licensed cellular networks.
Key Companies in the CBRS Ecosystem
In the United States, the shared use approach of CBRS spectrum allows non-telecommunications companies to operate within it. More specifically, these companies can obtain PALs and use the GAA tier to operate in the CBRS spectrum, which in turn enables new entrants to provide private network solutions.
For example, cloud service providers (CSPs) like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud have been developing services in the unlicensed CBRS spectrum band, as it enables them to cost-effectively build private networking solutions that connect back to their cloud services.
Large enterprises, such as Chevron, a multinational energy corporation, and John Deere, an agricultural machinery manufacturer, also see value in CBRS, as they directly acquired CBRS spectrum licenses in the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Auction 105.
Importantly, the Spectrum Access System (SAS), operated by Federated Wireless, is another critical component of the CBRS ecosystem. It is an automated radio spectrum coordination software system designed to manage and oversee the operation of CBRS devices and dynamically allocate available spectrum to new users.
Private 5G Networks
Private 5G networks are self-contained communication systems that utilize 5G wireless telecommunications standards to provide a localized, dedicated communication network for an organization. They consist of a core network and radio access network (RAN) that are located on-premises. User devices connect to the private 5G network by operating on licensed spectrum, using a combination of low-band, mid-band, and high-band (millimeter wave) frequencies.
Private 5G networks are deployed using the 5G standalone (SA) implementation of 5G, which relies on a 5G core network for managing network resources, user authentication, and mobility. Additionally, a 5G radio access network (RAN) comprises base stations or small cells that provide wireless connectivity and transfer data traffic between a user’s device and the network. User devices like smartphones, tablets, and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors ultimately connect to the private 5G network.
Private 5G networks are built using cloud-native principles, such as virtualization, containers, container orchestration, and microservices. Consequently, the on-premises location of the core network and the RAN can be physically on-site, meaning a private cloud with local servers, or logically on-site, utilizing a public cloud or hybrid cloud approach. The private 5G network is isolated from the public 5G network. Nevertheless, under certain circumstances, roaming agreements might allow specific devices to transition between the networks.
Private 5G vs 4G LTE Networks
Compared to 4G LTE, 5G supports a much broader range of spectrum, encompassing low-band, mid-band, and high-band frequencies. Low-band spectrum is ideal for propagation or coverage, while high-band spectrum bolsters network capacity. Consequently, private 5G networks can adapt to a diverse range of physical settings, from expansive mines necessitating extensive coverage to compact factories requiring the capacity to support thousands of densely packed devices.
More broadly, compared to 4G LTE, 5G is capable of offering improvements in:
- Latency: ultra-low latency of around 1 millisecond (ms)
- Speed: peak data rates of up to 20 gigabits per second (Gbps)
- Device Density: support up to 1 million connections per square kilometer
- Capacity: about 100 times the capacity of 4G LTE networks
- Spectral Efficiency: up to 30 bits per hertz per second (bits/Hz/s)
READ MORE: What’s the Difference Between 4G LTE and 5G?
Technologies Enhancing Private 5G Networks
Private 5G networks are enhanced by technologies including edge computing, network slicing, Open RAN, and virtual RAN, that optimize performance, flexibility, and cost-efficiency:
- Edge Computing: implementing private multi-access edge computing (MEC) enables data processing and analytics for enterprise applications to occur closer to the source of the data (i.e., on-premises). By integrating private MEC, such as AWS Outposts, with private 5G networks, enterprises can reduce latency and improve real-time decision-making, which is critical for high bandwidth enterprise use cases such as autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) or automated guided vehicles (AGVs)
- Network Slicing: allows the physical private 5G network infrastructure to be divided into multiple virtual networks, each with customized resources, policies, and performance characteristics to meet specific application requirements. Network slicing complements private 5G networks by providing security and isolation away from the physical premises served by a private network
- Open RAN and virtual RAN: these technologies promote flexibility and cost-efficiency in private 5G networks by decoupling hardware and software components in the radio access network (RAN). This facilitates interoperability and allows for the integration of solutions from different network equipment and software vendors, which helps reduce costs
Examples of Private Networks
Private networks are used by organizations including enterprises, government agencies, and educational institutions, in various industries such as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). The IIoT encompasses manufacturing, energy & utilities, oil & gas, transportation & logistics, agriculture, and mining. Additionally, private networks are commonly employed in industries like healthcare, public safety, education, and retail.
Private Network – Industrial Internet of Things
Within these industries, private networks can be deployed in a variety of indoor and outdoor settings, such as factories, warehouses, power plants, mines, offshore oil rigs, ports, hospitals, airports, shopping malls, convention centers, casinos, sports stadiums, university campuses, and smart cities.
Below is a specific example of a private network deployed at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This project involves a collaboration between Amazon Web Services (AWS), Crown Castle, JMA Wireless, and Federated Wireless to deploy a 4G LTE and 5G private network.
Private Networks at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU)
Utilizing the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum, known as the 3.5 GHz band, Carnegie Mellon University’s private network covers multiple indoor and outdoor sites across three square miles.
Outdoor CBRS-compatible radio units, along with small cell-based directional CBRS antennas, were installed on campus to enhance coverage and capacity. Crown Castle’s fiber network was leased to connect the radio units around the campus.
The private network setup involved JMA Wireless’ virtualized RAN (vRAN) software, which operates on a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) server, and a wireless-evolved packet core (EPC) deployed on AWS Snowball Edge as a compute engine. Access to CBRS spectrum was enabled through the Spectrum Access System (SAS) software, which is operated by Federated Wireless.
Over time, the private network is being upgraded to 5G by updating the Radio Access Network (RAN) equipment from JMA Wireless and the core network software running on AWS Snowball Edge.
As this upgrade occurs, the private network will leverage Amazon Elastic Kubernetes Service (Amazon EKS) Anywhere and JMA’s cloud-native 5G vRAN software. Amazon EKS Anywhere enables creation and operation of Kubernetes clusters on customer infrastructure for easier containerized application management.
Overall, the private network is capable of achieving speeds of over 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) and supports thousands of users. The primary objective of the network is to provide greater bandwidth and integrate AWS Local Zones, enabling Carnegie Mellon University faculty to test applications in a low-latency environment.
Advantages of Private Networks
The main advantages of private networks over traditional public networks and wired communication mediums, such as Industrial Ethernet, include enhanced data security and privacy, dedicated resources, customization and control, quality of service (QoS), and scalability and flexibility.
Enhanced Data Security and Privacy
Private networks offer a higher level of security, as they are closed systems accessible only to authorized users, and they ensure that sensitive data always remains within an organization’s controlled environment. For example, IoT device data traffic generated within private networks is stored and managed exclusively within an organization. Together, these characteristics reduce the risk of data breaches, unauthorized access, and cyberattacks, as well as data leakage or exposure to external parties.
Private networks, particularly private cellular networks like 5G, have dedicated resources such as licensed spectrum, which provides dedicated frequency bands and, in turn, bandwidth. These characteristics result in a more consistent and reliable connection, making private networks less susceptible to interference from other wireless networks. As a result, private networks are particularly suitable for mission-critical applications and latency-sensitive operations in industries like manufacturing and energy & utilities.
Customization and Control
Organizations can customize private networks to meet their specific needs, including network architecture, coverage, capacity, operating protocols, security policies, and regulatory compliance requirements, such as those in a large hospital setting. This level of control allows for improved performance, optimized resource allocation, and reduces organizations’ dependency on external service providers.
Quality of Service (QoS)
Private networks can prioritize specific types of traffic, enabling organizations to ensure the performance of critical applications and services, like real-time video surveillance or remote machine control. This can result in better overall network performance and ultra-low latency. Additionally, private networks can be designed with redundancy, handoff, and failover capabilities to ensure high availability, crucial for industries and applications where downtime can have significant consequences.
Scalability and Flexibility
Private networks can be easily scaled to accommodate growth in the number of connected devices or increased data traffic capacity, ensuring that organizations can adapt to changing needs and requirements. Moreover, private wireless networks offer a level of flexibility that wired networks cannot match, particularly in dynamic environments like factories or warehouses. For example, moving a connected device within a wired network may necessitate relocating the entire network, which can be costly and, in some cases, unfeasible.
Private 5G Network Providers
Private 5G network providers, including cloud service providers (CSPs), wireless carriers, and tower companies, are actively participating in the market by offering a range of products and services. Many organizations lack the expertise needed to deploy private networks, a task that is particularly complex when dealing with 5G technology.
Cloud Service Providers (CSPs)
Cloud service providers (CSPs) hold a distinct advantage in offering private cellular networks, as they have already deployed edge computing services, such as AWS Outposts, within enterprise on-premises environments to support various applications. To date, Amazon Web Services (AWS) has led CSPs in private 5G network services, with Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud releasing more preliminary solutions.
Amazon Web Services (AWS)
Amazon Web Services (AWS) launched AWS Private 5G in the United States, a managed service that enables enterprises to deploy, operate, and scale private 5G networks in their on-premises locations within days instead of months. The service automates the setup and deployment of the network, scaling capacity on demand to support additional devices and increased network traffic.
AWS Private 5G provides pre-configured hardware and a software-based core, which delivers network functions for the wireless network. The physical hardware includes cables, radio units (small cells), SIM cards, and other networking appliances owned and managed by AWS. Furthermore, AWS services like AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) manage access control for the SIM devices, while AWS CloudWatch is utilized for network monitoring.
The radio units come pre-configured for network access to an available AWS Region and the Spectrum Access System (SAS), a cloud-based service operated by Federated Wireless that manages spectrum grants using Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) in the 3.5 GHz band. AWS stipulates that customers must create their network in one of the following AWS Regions:
- US East (Northern Virginia) – us-east-1
- US East (Ohio) – us-east-2
- US West (Oregon) – us-west-2
With no upfront fees or per-device costs, customers only pay for the network capacity and throughput they request. The pay-as-you-go AWS Private 5G service also charges customers an hourly rate based on the number of active radio units in use on their network.
Microsoft, through its Azure for Operators initiative, partnered with CommScope, a network equipment provider, to develop a private network solution, which combines Azure Private Multi-Access Edge Compute (MEC) and CommScope CBRS access points to support industrial manufacturing. Deployed as a pilot program in CommScope’s manufacturing innovation center in Minnesota, the private network solution improves operational efficiency and manufacturing agility by enabling low-latency and mobile applications.
Additionally, Microsoft, which owns Affirmed Networks, offers Affirmed Private Network Service (APNS), a fully managed and configurable private cellular network offering, enabling wireless carriers and managed service providers to run private 4G LTE and 5G core networks for enterprises.
Google Cloud launched a private networking solution based on Google Distributed Cloud Edge to deliver private cellular networks. The solution aims to address the performance, service-level, and economic needs of various industries by combining dedicated network capabilities with edge computing application stacks. Through partnerships with Boingo Wireless, Crown Castle, Celona, and Betacom, Google Cloud enables enterprises to deploy, manage, and scale private networks.
Wireless carriers can offer end-to-end private 5G networks directly to their enterprise customers, including providing the licensed spectrum, associated network services, and seamless handoff and failovers to the public wireless network. To date, Verizon and DISH Network have led U.S. wireless carriers in developing private 5G network solutions; however, their commercial solutions remain limited.
Verizon commercially launched a private 5G network solution, known as On Site 5G, in the United States, designed specifically for large enterprises and public sector customers. This 5G non-standalone (NSA) network combines small cells with a 4G LTE packet core and radios, providing high-speed, secure, and customized 5G connectivity. Through On Site 5G, Verizon offers a seamless and reliable private 5G network to various facilities, including campuses, industrial, and manufacturing sites, even in areas where public 5G coverage is not available.
Once DISH Network launches its cloud-native 5G network nationwide in the United States, it will be able to seamlessly configure private 5G networks for customers. Leveraging Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), DISH hosts its 5G Radio Access Network (RAN) and core network for both public and private 5G networks.
Tower companies, including American Tower, Crown Castle, SBA Communications, and Cellnex Telecom, are infrastructure providers that support private 5G networks through their portfolios of cell towers, small cells, and distributed antenna systems (DAS). Furthermore, these companies are also directly involved in building private 5G networks by designing and implementing these solutions.
For example, American Tower, in collaboration with Amazon Web Services (AWS), is conducting a trial in Las Vegas’ Miracle Mile Shops, an indoor shopping mall, with the aim of deploying a private 5G network for businesses and mall-goers. One practical application of this private 5G network is the activation and control of after-hours robotic in-store cleaners.
Aside from the large tower companies, neutral host infrastructure operators, such as Boingo Wireless and Extenet, are also actively building private 5G networks.