Ambitious enterprises are preparing to take advantage of technological advances and evolving global opportunities. At the same time, many organizations are shifting crucial aspects of their operations to private 5G networks, making use of spectrum that has been released for that purpose around the world. The powerful use cases they enable promise to deliver huge business advantage.

In this article, I will explain why I expect many businesses to turn to private 5G to underpin their digital transformation ambitions and the key design factors that will maximize the network ROI. This is a topic we expand on in our new whitepaper – Mobilizing private 5G networks – which has been written as a practical guide for creating maximum business impact when designing or deploying private networks.

I believe now is the time to seize the benefits of this new connectivity. The pandemic has shown that those who deployed IT and wireless innovation were more efficient, adapted more rapidly to market turmoil and displayed greater resilience in the face of change. The lesson learned was not to step back, but to press forward. Let’s start by looking at the enterprise benefits of 5G more broadly.

5G will underpin the most transformative digital industrial applications

Typically, wireless industrial network solutions have relied on Wi-Fi and provided the necessary quality of service through massive over-provisioning of capacity. This approach can’t hope to meet the demands of truly transformative digital industrial applications. The initial consideration of LTE or 5G is to overcome the limitations of Wi-Fi. But going forward, the emphasis will be on the superior levels of service delivered to higher densities of connected devices with lower latency, improved coverage and superior interference tolerance. It is these that will unlock advanced applications.

With their broad range of capabilities, 5G cellular networks have the potential to replace many different networks, with a single proven, global standard. And although 5G has many capabilities, specific high-performance applications demand much more than a plug-and-play approach. Significant customizations are required – along with the application of highly complex features – to ensure that those advanced applications, with different quality of service requirements, can be supported.

Private 5G networks will gain traction due to a desire for data ownership and customized connectivity

Which spectrum do you use? Do you own and operate your own network? Considerations around such questions when deciding what 5G solution best matches your use case are many faceted. While an off-the-shelf 5G system will provide useful building blocks, concerns around data ownership and liability for breaches – not to mention the quality of the coverage and services – all need to be taken into account.

Further deliberations are necessary around the number of devices/mobile clients to be carried on the network and their density per square meter. Understanding the application’s requirements – to achieve the optimum use of the available cloud, edge, device and connectivity infrastructure with their differing latency and cost characteristics – is another important factor in deciding on an appropriate way to proceed.

Against this background, many enterprises have begun to explore – and even start rolling out – private 5G networks as spectrum is released around the world, including in the United States, United Kingdom, Japan and Germany. Suddenly, a variety of transformational opportunities are within reach, from real-time smart grid monitoring and control for utilities to the automation of warehouses, predicative maintenance for manufacturing and much more besides.

Successfully planning a private 5G network comes down to understanding the purpose, parameters and availability

Building a successful private 5G network requires a carefully planned strategic approach with accurate technical input from appropriate experts. Like any other business planning activity, there are complexities and risks which need to be addressed.

While it may appear obvious that the first step is to define the purpose or use cases, there is often a central set of use cases that gives an acceptable ROI with additional, supplementary, use cases added at a later date on the incorrect assumption that small changes only have a minor impact. The inevitable interactions between different use cases can lead to an exponential increase in complexity. This gives poor outcomes and, in the worst case, can lead to a system that is impossible to implement because of diametrically opposite requirements.

The key parameters defining the network are the amount of data to be transferred (throughput), the number of devices that will need to connect to the network (capacity), the average number of devices per unit area (density) and the time it takes to communicate between parts of the network (latency).

5G is a cellular system so capacity effectively just defines the number of cells needed, whereas the other three parameters define the properties of each cell. While this sounds easy (define the number of cells, and repeat each individual cell as many times as is needed) there is a hidden complexity here to ensure continuous coverage without causing the levels of interference that are the downfall of current systems. This is a complicated area which we expand on in the paper.

Finally, understanding the required availability of the network is critical. Typically, a business-critical IT network is available during the working week and updates are performed during non-working times. But a factory or warehouse must operate year-round with each minute of downtime measured in lost revenue. There is a significant difference in the capital and operational costs associated with the networks required for office workers and the networks required to support industrial processes. Choosing what level of availability your system needs to meet expectations is key to designing an effective system.

Customization is key to network ROI

When designing private 5G networks, I always advocate an objective review at the outset to get to grips with the various trade-offs and ensure the installation achieves optimum ROI. Although many vendors will offer an off-the-shelf system to compete with the simplicity of Wi-Fi, the importance of customization throughout the network shouldn’t be underestimated.

This is a theme we return to throughout the whitepaper. If you are an enterprise, or perhaps a carrier or technology supplier, considering the deployment of a private 5G network as the foundation stone of your digital transformation, then you may find the paper an interesting read. Please don’t hesitate to contact me to continue the conversation.

“Mobilizing private 5G networks” is available for download now at the Cambridge Consultants website