Spectrum for private networks: Role and current challenge

Spectrum is a fundamental puzzle piece required for the deployment of private networks but its availability is fragmented and differs across different countries. We explore the role of spectrum availability in wider private networks adoption and why it’s important. 

Role of spectrum availability in private networks adoption

Spectrum is one of the key essential building blocks for a private cellular network. Therefore, a critical enabler of wider private network adoption is the availability of suitable spectrum.

To recap, there are a few options for private networks spectrum:

  • Spectrum from licensed operators: This primarily refers to mobile network operators that can deploy private networks for enterprise customers using their own spectrum, or lease their spectrum to others to use
  • Licensed spectrum dedicated for private networks: This refers to spectrum that is allocated specifically to non-telecoms operators (e.g. enterprises) to deploy private networks
  • Unlicensed spectrum: Commonly used for Wi-Fi or IoT protocols but can also be used for private networks, but without the ability to fully control the network performance or quality of service, typically on “best efforts” basis

In terms of comparing the various options above, licensed spectrum (either dedicated or from an operator) is typically preferred due to the ability to better control and guarantee the performance and quality of service of the network.

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Suitability: What spectrum frequencies are being allocated for private network use?

In addition to spectrum availability, spectrum band suitability is also a key element. Higher frequency ranges are worse for outdoor-to-indoor penetration but provide higher capacity. Lower frequency ranges (e.g. low band, below 2GHz) are best for coverage, range and outdoor-to-indoor penetration but limited in amount of total capacity/bandwidth they can support. Mid-band (2GHz-6GHz) are typically a mix of both capacity and coverage.

In its 2023 update, EUWENA (the European Users Wireless Enterprise Network Association) cites that bands such as 700MHz to 900MHz, or 2.6GHz and 3.4GHz are more compelling for private networks due to device availability and compatibility. It also shares its own scoring of countries based on band popularity, accessibility, bandwidth etc. The MFA (MulteFire Alliance) also publishes a map summarising available spectrum across different countries.

Figure 1: EUWENA scoring on countries’ access to spectrum for private networks

Although there is still significant progress to be made in spectrum availability, many governments and regulatory authorities across the globe have started to make localised mobile licenses available, suitable for covering enterprise sites or wider areas such as cities. For example, the UK and Germany have both dedicated spectrum with innovative local licensing and usage models with the former providing access to multiple bands and the latter dedicating an industrial 5G band within the 3700-3800MHz frequencies. The US has a unique model with its CBRS band (3550-3700MHz), fostering a vast ecosystem of vendors, service providers and more importantly users across a myriad of industries. More announcements are happening across the globe, for example with both Poland and Bahrain announcing the availability of 3.8-4.2GHz frequencies and the Netherlands opening up the 3400-3450MHz and 3750-3800MHz frequencies for private networks, and the expectation is that we will continue to see more regulatory authorities across the globe following suit.

Drawing on analysis on our Global Insights Tool, we can also see that the level of activity in high scoring countries below indicated that spectrum availability does play a key role. Germany and UK for example have a relatively high number of deployments, so do France, Belgium and Sweden (many of which are driven by specialist non-public MNO providers).

The current issue with spectrum availability

Some countries have not even made licensed spectrum available for private networks. Where spectrum is available for the deployment of private networks, there is a current lack of consistency and harmonisation in spectrum allocated.

The lack of coordination on spectrum availability means that it will be challenging to build similar private networks in multiple countries (e.g. for a multinational company), which may slow down wider scaled adoption and impose more complexity for enterprises that wish to do so. Many earlier deployments of private networks are now starting to scale to multiple sites and operations across other countries but cannot easily replicate one deployment to another potential site in another country where the spectrum available differs.

Lack of harmonisation can also lead to the absence of scale economies, e.g. device and chipset ecosystem rallying around harmonised spectrum, which also directly impacts the feasibility and cost of private networks.

Looking ahead, we hope to see more coordination and harmonisation of spectrum allocation for private networks to remove any potential barriers or hindrances to wider adoption.

Yesmean Luk

Yesmean Luk

Yesmean Luk

Principal Consultant

Yesmean is a Senior Consultant at STL Partners and has led and managed client projects with both operators and technology companies across a number of domains, including private networks, telco cloud, network slicing, edge computing and IoT. Before joining STL, she held various consulting roles at Deloitte and IBM. She holds a Global MSc in Management from the London School of Economics, specialising in strategy and international business.

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