Weigh your options when choosing a telecom operator as a private wireless partner
The recent trends towards the digitalization of enterprise operations, including automation, IoT and digital twins technology, are creating a need for a new kind of private wireless connectivity based on 3GPP mobile technologies. Many attempts to implement Industry 4.0 use cases using Wi-Fi struggle with its lack of predictability, while Ethernet cabling often proves too costly and inflexible for many applications. With its impressive performance, coverage, and security requirements, it is no surprise that 4G/LTE and 5G wireless networking is becoming very relevant to enterprises pursuing digital transformation.
Private mobile networks are, at the same time, disrupting the traditional public network model that has defined the mobile industry for decades. This is creating an opening for a growing ecosystem of third-party suppliers and partners to help enterprises deploy their own private wireless networks. In response to this new competition, public communication service providers (CSPs) are also addressing this new opportunity and positioning themselves as relevant partners. So, how and why would an enterprise partner with a CSP, and what are some of the risks and benefits?
The answer is not straightforward. This also depends on the kind of network planned, where it is to be implemented and, most importantly, what operational use cases the enterprise is trying to achieve. Given that most CSPs have been running mobile 4G networks for the last decade and have national coverage and access to radio spectrum, there can definitely be advantages for the enterprise to bring in a CSP.
For specific use cases, the CSP’s strength is obvious. Logistics companies, for instance, might employ private wireless for their warehouses, but want to link to a national public network to keep in contact with their trucks as they cross the country. A mine may be operating in areas beyond a CSP’s coverage, but want to link its private wireless operations directly to port operations and transportation corridors for which the CSP can provide extended wireless coverage. These kinds of hybrid private-public deployments leverage the inherent strengths of the CSP, such as wide-area nationwide mobile coverage and inter-site wireline connectivity. Having said that, this is a journey and we already see a lot of enterprises partnering with the CSPs for pure isolated network before implementing such private-public coexistence.
There is some concern that mobile public networks do not have the reliability and performance requirements needed for enterprise use cases because they are engineered to meet the needs of consumer mobile subscribers. However, CSP’s existing networks do have the ability to be multi-purpose. Next-generation public safety networks, for instance, are currently running mission-critical communications and applications over public mobile networks using the secure mobile virtual network (S-MVNO) model for LTE/4G. With 5G network slicing, CSPs will easily be able to meet SLAs for a specific enterprise use case, while providing best effort consumer services on another slice.
CSPs greatest strength is their extensive experience operating 3GPP communications technologies. Even in use cases where enterprises may prefer to keep their data confidential and not want it to leave the enterprise domain, there are solutions which CSPs can provide that can ensure that confidentiality. To take a hospital campus, for instance, the data that is being passed around the network must remain on premises and completely secured. In this case, the CSP can host core network services but use edge servers on the campus to keep data wholly within the hospital domain. Similarly, for advanced manufacturing, edge servers can support local wireless access points to provide the low latency performance requirements needed for automation without critical operational data leaving the premises.
The majority of private networks in operation today have been deployed using licensed spectrum via an arrangement with a CSP. Yet, with new spectrum being made available for enterprise use, as well as the expansion of unlicensed spectrum, it is now becoming possible for enterprises to implement private wireless networks on 4.9G/LTE or 5G without renting spectrum from a CSP. At the same time, CSPs do have the advantage of owning a large range of spectrum which can be complementary. Depending on the applications they want to run, the enterprises may want for example to get access to CSP licensed spectrum to complement unlicensed ones, such as FDD spectrum for activating NB-IOT or LTE-M, which are not yet supported on TDD spectrum.
There are multiple ways to configure a private wireless network to take advantage of the strengths of CSPs while keeping control of critical enterprise data. Given the cloud-native architecture of LTE/4.9G and 5G, it is possible to configure the network so that it isn’t a binary choice between a standalone private network or a public network. There are many options from a fully private wireless network, to private wireless as a service and those can all be provided with a CSP.
The private wireless market is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Enterprises need solutions tailored for their specific needs. This will be a challenge for some CSPs, so enterprises need to keep their eyes open in choosing a partner. CSPs that attempt to treat private wireless in the usual hands-off, low investment, low-risk approach typical of public mobile services will not make good partners. Ensure that the CSP has a dedicated enterprise or business services division and is focused on your needs. This CSP can eventually even already be your business partner.
Private wireless is a big opportunity for the enterprise market. CSPs have strengths that enterprises can leverage to their advantage: their national reach, their experience in planning and installing mobile networks, their ability to offer and run different services on their already deployed networks — and their access to a wide range of spectrum. Many CSPs will be eager to partner with enterprises, as well as other system integrators or enterprise suppliers to create a new ecosystem of devices and services that will support the Industry 4.0 revolution.
For more on the private wireless opportunity, download this paper from Heavy Reading.