Private networks: Lessons so far and what next

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We explore the recent developments in the private network market, regulatory activities and policies on local and shared spectrum, and the different deployment approaches and business cases for traditional telcos and the expanding range of other stakeholders.

The private networks market is rapidly developing

Businesses across a range of sectors are exploring the benefits of private networks in supporting their connected operations. However, there are considerable variations between national markets, reflecting spectrum and other regulatory actions, as well as industrial structure and other local factors. US, Germany, UK, Japan and the Nordics are among the leading markets.

Enterprises’ adoption of digitalisation and automation programmes is growing across various industries. The demand from enterprises stems from their need for customised networks to meet their vertical-specific connectivity requirements – as well as more basic considerations of coverage and cost of public networks, or alternative wireless technologies.

On the supply side, the development in cellular standards, including the virtualisation of the RAN and core elements, the availability of edge computing, and cloud management solutions, as well as the changing spectrum regulations are making private networks more accessible for enterprises. That said, many recently deployed private cellular networks still use “traditional” integrated small cells, or major vendors’ bundled solutions – especially in conservative sectors such as utilities and public safety.

Many new players are entering the market through different vertical and horizontal approaches and either competing or collaborating with traditional telcos. Traditional telcos, new telcos (mainly building private networks or offering network services), and other stakeholders are all exploring strategies to engage with the market and assessing the opportunities across the value chain as private network adoption increases.

Following up on our 2019 report Private and vertical cellular networks: Threats and opportunities, we explore the recent developments in the private network market, regulatory activities and policy around local and shared spectrum, and the different deployment approaches and business cases. In this report we address several interdependent elements of the private networks landscape

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What is a private network?

A private network leverages dedicated resources such as infrastructure and spectrum to provide precise coverage and capacity to specific devices and user groups. The network can be as small as a single radio cell covering a single campus or a location such as a manufacturing site (or even a single airplane), or it can span across a wider geographical area such as a nationwide railway network or regional utility grids.

Private networks is an umbrella term that can includes different LAN (or WAN) connectivity options such as Wi-Fi and LPWAN. However, more commonly, the term is being associated with private cellular networks based on 3GPP mobile technologies, i.e. LTE or 5G New Radio (NR).

Private networks are also different from in-building densification solutions like small cells and DAS which extend the coverage of public network or strengthen its capacity indoors or in highly dense locations. These solutions are still part of the public network and do not support customised control over the local network access or other characteristics. In future, some may support local private networks as well as public MNOs’ services.

Besides dedicated coverage and capacity, private networks can be customised in other aspects such as security, latency and integration with the enterprise internal systems to meet business specific requirements in ways that best effort public networks cannot.

Unlike public networks, private networks are not available to the public through commercially available devices and SIM cards. The network owner or operator controls the authorisation and the access to the network for permissioned devices and users. These definitions blur somewhat if the network is run by a “community” such as a municipality.

Typically, devices will not work outside the boundaries of their private network. That is a requirement in many use cases, such as manufacturing, where devices are not expected to continue functioning outside the premise. However, in a few areas, such as logistics, solutions can include the use of dual-SIM devices for both public and private networks or the use of other wide area technologies such as TETRA for voice. Moreover, agreements with public networks to enable roaming can be activated to support certain service continuity outside the private network boundaries.

While the technology and market are still developing, several terms are being used interchangeably to describe 3GPP private networks such dedicated networks, standalone networks, campus networks, local networks, vertical mobile network and non-public networks (NPN) as defined by the 3GPP.

The emergence of new telcos

Many telcos are not ready to support private networks demands from enterprises on large scale because they lack sufficient resources and expertise. Also, some enterprises might be reluctant to work with telcos for different reasons including their concerns over the traditional telcos’ abilities in vertical markets and a desire to control costs. This gap is already catalysing the emergence of new types of mobile network service providers, as opposed to traditional MNOs that operate national or regional public mobile networks.

These players essentially carry out the same roles as traditional MNOs in configuring the network, provisioning the service, and maintaining the private network infrastructure. Some of them may also have access to spectrum and buy network equipment and technologies directly from network equipment vendors. In addition to “new telcos” or “new operators”, other terms have been used to describe these players such as specialist operators and alternative operators. Throughout this report, we will use new telcos or specialist operators when describing these players collectively and traditional/public operators when referring to typical wide area national mobile network provider. New players can be divided into the following categories:

Possible private networks service providers

private networks ecosystem

Source: STL Partners

Table of content

  • Executive Summary
    • What next
    • Trends and recommendations for telcos, vendors, enterprises and policymakers
  • Introduction
  • Types of private network operators
    • What is a private network?
    • The emergence of new telcos
  • How various stakeholders are approaching the market
    • Technology development: Choosing between LTE and 5G
    • Private network technology vendors
    • Regional overview
    • Vertical overview
    • Mergers and acquisitions activities
  • The development of spectrum regulations
    • Unlicensed spectrum for LTE and 5G is an attractive option, but it remains limited
    • The rise of local spectrum licensing threatens some telcos
    • …but there is no one-size fits all in local spectrum licensing
    • How local spectrum licensing shapes the market and enterprise adoption
    • Recommendations for different stakeholders
  • Assessing the approaches to network implementation
    • Private network deployment models
    • Business models and roles for telcos
  • Conclusion and recommendations
  • Index
  • Appendix 1:  Examples of private networks deployments in 2020 – 2021

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