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Private 5G’s transcending impact

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Enterprises across several industries are building private 5G networks. Saf Malik looks at what its widespread adoption could look like.

The global private cellular network market will likely expand to US$6.32 billion by 2026 from $1.83 billion in 2021, according to research firm Frost and Sullivan.

This growth will be mainly spurred by private 5G – mobile networks that use the same technology as public 5G networks, but allow their owners to provide priority access or require licences to access them.

As global rollouts of public 5G continue at a staggering pace, private 5G is already here and is being quietly hailed as a “game-changer” for enterprise.

The notion of private networks has been around for a while, beginning with the use of 4G LTE Wifi technology, but the technology’s potential remained limited. This changed when regulators opened up spectrum for private 5G.

In order to build a private 5G network, an enterprise must buy spectrum from governments, mobile network operators or third-party spectrum providers. They can then use that spectrum to deploy a private wireless network at facilities that require coverage, speed and security capabilities beyond that offered by Wifi and other network technologies.

“Private 5G represents the future of connectivity for a host of industries and large sites, from factories and schools to military bases,” Marc Overton, managing director of BT Enterprise’s Division X says. “These networks are fast, secure, provide both indoor and outdoor cellular coverage and can handle large amounts of data.”

Overton adds that 5G provides more reliable and much faster connectivity, enabling businesses to manage greater data volumes to help making real-time decisions in complex situations.

Yet they provide several more benefits beyond lightning-fast speed, low latency and secure connectivity.

“[Private 5G] provides the foundation to overlay a range of other new technologies including internet-of-things, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality, and in doing so opens up a wealth of opportunities for businesses,” says Overton. “This will help to increase automation, drive efficiencies and usher in a new era of smart tech processes and applications.”

Trending up

The market for private 5G will grow at an annual rate of 40% during the next few years, according to MarketResearch.com.

With major organisations such as Amazon Web Services, Ericsson and Cisco embracing private 5G to improve the efficiency and security of their networks, several more companies are expected to follow.

Overton says BT is aware of the huge untapped potential of private 5G, and that the telco’s customers are asking how it can help their operations. He adds that 5G offers enterprises the speed, latency, capacity and security required to accelerate their transformations.

“At BT, we’ve been at the forefront of use cases, including the world’s first 5G virtual 3D engineering model at Hyperbat in Coventry, significantly speeding up the manufacturing process for hybrid and electric vehicle production in the UK,” he says.

Overton notes that other use cases include the smart ports at Belfast Harbour and the Port of Tyne, and broadcasting firsts with BT Sport and the BBC.

“We’ve worked closely with the Ministry of Defence to create 5G smart bases that provide the connectivity they need to provide future-proofed training and facilities for military personnel,” he adds.

Transcending impact

Mikaël Schachne, vice-president telco market at BICS, believes 5G’s promise is simple: faster and more reliable connectivity. But its effects are poised to transcend consumers, as governments across the world and industries including manufacturing, logistics and healthcare, adopt it and feel its benefits.

The US Department of Defence is investing around $100 million in a private 5G network at its global logistics centre in Albany, Georgia – a critical part of a wider plan to raise its logistics efficiency by 40%.

“Governments and federal departments will see enormous value in private networks, particularly in urban areas for congestion management and real-time operating systems,” Schachne says. “We’ve been hearing about smart cities forever without seeing a huge number of real-world applications, and the lack of high real-time low-latency connections has been a major factor in this.”

With secure real-time connectivity, smart cities would be able to deploy intelligent transport systems that analyse traffic and congestion in order to re-route traffic and prioritise emergency services when needed. The connected devices and sensors required for this, such as smart junctions and traffic lights, would require low-latency connections that private 5G delivers, Schachne adds.

Schachne also points to the rare, real-world examples of smart city technologies that are emerging: “Kelowna is Canada’s first 5G smart city and is an ongoing project aiming at leveraging its network for traffic management throughout the city.”

More recently, Etisalat, the United Arab Emirates’ state-operated telco, commissioned Nokia to supply private 5G networks in Abu Dhabi.

Schachne notes that it is likely that enterprises will lead the way in the adoption of private 5G, although governments are close behind.

Manufacturing

Schachne says that private 5G networks for enterprises are the key to realising many of 5G’s futuristic use cases, especially through accelerating the rise of the internet of things (IoT) and Industry 4.0.

“Private 5G will be pivotal to the global manufacturing industry and in building the smart factory,” says Schachne.

According to a recent study from Accedian, three out of four manufacturers intend to adopt private 5G networks by 2024.

“Connected devices have long been a flagship use case of the IoT in manufacturing,” Schachne says. “Automated guided vehicles, sensors on advanced hardware, such as welding robots, and smart production lines all need the real-time ultra-low latency connectivity that 5G delivers. Such data needs to be kept secure, which a private network makes possible.”

Private 5G’s ultra-low latency will allow engineers to assist on-site teams through “remote vision”, he adds. Remote vision is similar to augmented and virtual reality technology, but uses cameras on apparel (such as helmets) or equipment which provide live, point-of-view video feeds to the user. This could allow support teams to advise on issues without needing to physically visit a frontline site.

Businesses that are now using private 5G include the car manufacturers Ford and Mercedes-Benz.

“Ford’s E:PriME [Electrified Powertrain in Manufacturing Engineering] project in the UK uses the increased bandwidth of its private network to reduce delays, improve security, and enable remote worker expertise to support operations across the site,” says Schachne. “Similarly, Mercedes-Benz uses private networks in some of its facilities to operate connected machines and track products across the assembly line in real-time.”

Logistics

Schachne notes that private 5G networks also have a wide range of applications within the logistics industry. Warehouses, distribution centres and ports are increasingly using connected devices and advanced tracking systems to handle flows of goods in and out of their sites. Devices with high connectivity requirements include automated pick-and-pack robots, shipment scanners, IoT camera systems, and heavy machinery.

“As logistics centres look increasingly towards automation, connectivity requirements for supporting IoT and AI applications are quickly reaching a point where private 5G networks are a must,” Schachne says.

The Port of Antwerp is one example, he says. The port’s standalone 5G network is being used to test a variety of Industry 4.0 use cases.

“Applications being tested in the port include a ‘connected tugboat’ that uses radar and sonar, smart cameras, drones and autonomous ships,” explains Schachne.

Healthcare

Healthcare is yet another industry set to benefit from private networks as it supports the creation of smarter hospital ecosystems, says Schachne.

“The continued digitalisation in hospitals will rely on private networks due to their speed, bandwidth and high security,” he says.

Private networks could help staff and smart devices across departments communicate more easily with each other.

“Expanding private networks in hospitals also unlocks many IoT use cases,” Schachne adds. “Smart devices like heart monitors or MRIs can improve efficiency and safety, while connected sensors can monitor the refrigeration of medicine or track air quality.”

Schachne notes that AI has long been touted as a massive gamechanger for the healthcare industry, and that private 5G can support these applications while keeping sensitive data secure.

While the number of private networks currently deployed in hospitals is low, Schachne says that “trailblazing” sites include Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center and London’s Bethlem Royal Hospital. The psychiatric hospital is using a private network to improve services, including monitoring pharmaceuticals and supporting staff communication around its campus.

5G’s watershed

According to Capgemini, the IT industry is at a “pivotal point” as private 5G technology transits from trials to full-scale deployment.

The French IT firm notes that private 5G networks could also help close digital divides, as they can provide network services to small areas and are cheaper to set up than public networks.

As the 5G ecosystem matures due to more spectrum becoming available and more devices getting connected, deployment costs will fall and 5G networks will become more accessible. And once private 5G’s benefits are made clear by its early adopters, it will be more desirable.