Airports: The roles of 5G & private networks

A deep dive into private networks for the aviation vertical

This report is intended to be both a specific examination of an important sector of opportunity for Private 5G (P5G) and an example of the complexity of major industrial sectors and campus-based environments. It also covers opportunities for MNOs.

Airports have been among the earliest sites for private cellular and remain a major focus for vendors and service providers, as solutions mature and spectrum options proliferate. They already generate huge investments into public cellular (indoor and outdoor) as well as being headline sites for Wi-Fi deployment and use. They also employ dozens of other wireless technologies, from radar to critical voice communications.

In the case of airports, the largest are so large and diverse that they actually resemble cities, with “private” networks serving an environment actually quite similar to a small national operator or regional MNO. For example, Dallas Fort-Worth airport spans 27 square miles – larger than the island of Manhattan or the principality of San Marino. They may have 100s of companies as tenants, and 10000s of employees – as well as passengers, vehicles and IoT devices. This may mean that they end up with multiple private wireless networks in different parts of the airfield – from the passenger terminal to maintenance hangars to hotels, to the car-rental facility.

They are also intensive Coordination Age ecosystems. Their effective operation involves the safe and secure management of millions of physical and digital assets across multiple parties, billions of dollars, and many lives.

Often technology product and marketing executives think of industry sectors as monolithic (“finance”, “retail”, “oil and gas” etc), typically aligning with familiar industry classification codes. The truth is that each industry has multiple sub-sectors and varied site types, numerous applications, several user-groups, arrays of legacy systems and technology vendors, and differing attitudes and affordability of wireless solutions.

STL Partners hopes that this exercise examining airports will prompt suppliers and operators to drill into other vertical sectors in similar depth. Depending on the response to this type of document, we may well write up other areas in similar fashion in future. (We are also available for private analysis projects).

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Sector trends and drivers affecting private 5G networks

This report is not the appropriate venue for a full analysis of the aviation and airport industry. However, a number of top-level trends are important to understand, as there is a fairly direct link to the deployment of cellular technologies and private 4G/5G.

Trends for airlines

Before the pandemic, there was a sustained growth in worldwide air-passenger traffic, fuelled by the growth of Chinese and Indian middle-classes, as well as inter-regional and long-haul flights in and between Europe, Asia, the Americas and the Middle East. Forecasts were continued for growth, with air-freight also increasing alongside passenger numbers.

This growth resulted in numerous impacts on aviation more broadly:

  • Construction of many entirely new airports, along with extra terminals and refurbishments at established sites. Examples have included immense new airports at Beijing, Doha and Istanbul. These developments typically include huge focus on efficiency, IoT and safety – all heavily reliant on connectivity.
  • Low-cost and “basic” airlines such as Southwest, EasyJet, AirAsia and others have grown rapidly (at least pre-pandemic). Some have built dedicated terminals. Many have a huge focus on fast “turns” of aircraft between arrival and departure. This needs enhanced coordination and communications between multiple ground-service providers to manage 50+ tasks, from baggage unloading to cleaning and refuelling.
  • Established airlines focusing on greater efficiency, novel route choices, new hub airports, better customer satisfaction via information and interactivity throughout their journeys, as well as pushing ancillary services such as contract maintenance. Again, connectivity plays a variety of roles, from hangars to in-flight wireless.
  • Major warehousing and logistics centres built at airports for companies such as Fedex and UPS, as well as eCommerce players such as Amazon starting to build fleets of planes and on- or near-airport facilities. These typically feature high levels of automation and wide use of robotics.
Long-term air passenger growth (pre-pandemic)

Long-term air passenger growth (pre-pandemic)

Airports as “hubs” for multiple businesses

Many airports now operate on-site business centres, hotels, large retail facilities – as well as growing sophistication of air-freight, contract maintenance services and aircraft refits. Each is often a business in its own right, with separate buildings – but must also coordinate with the central airport authority in terms of security, traffic, signage and vehicle movements.

As well as their own internal connectivity requirements for employees and a growing range of IoT systems, the site-owners are also responsible for wired and wireless links for stakeholders such as:

  • Transportation companies
    • Airlines, both within the terminals and at hangars / warehouses and nearby offices.
    • Shipping agents and freight forwarders
    • Logistics and package-delivery firms
  • Services providers
    • National mobile network operators
    • Retailers and other concessions
    • Vehicle rental agencies
    • Bus, rail, taxi & tour companies
    • Caterers
    • Fuel companies
    • Security firms
    • On-site hotels, warehouses and business parks
    • Insurance and finance organisations
  • Operations and public safety
    • Police and firefighters
    • Medical services
    • Air / port traffic control
    • Power and lighting providers
    • Construction contractors

Many of these groups could potentially justify their own investments in private cellular networks (as well as indoor coverage and Wi-Fi if they have dedicated buildings). An open question is whether airport authorities will try to deploy fully campus-wide networks, or whether a diverse array of separate infrastructures will emerge organically.

Industry transformation, automation and IoT-led innovation

As well as the airlines, the airport authorities have become ever-more focused on technology of the site overall. They are aware of operational efficiency, security and safety – and increasing the potential to earn extra revenues from passengers. A very broad array of existing and new use-cases are leaning on improved connectivity, such as:

  • In-building coverage (and huge capacity) for passengers and workers, all of whom expect both multi-network cellular and ubiquitous Wi-Fi availability
  • Prolific use of digital sign-boards for passengers, staff, plane/ship crews etc
  • Freight-tracking, including details about pallets and containers
  • Security cameras and sensors
  • Smart lighting for runways, loading areas and local roadways
  • Support of complex and mission-critical baggage-handling systems
  • Border and customs functions, including automated passport scanners with video analytics
  • “Smart building” technology ensuring optimal use of ventilation, heating, lighting and safety sensors
  • Robotic and remote-controlled vehicles, such as tugs or drones
  • Voice communications systems, now evolving from 2-way radios to cellular-based systems
  • Maintenance systems for aircraft in hangars – increasingly with high-definition video inspections, augmented reality for engineers, and strict requirements on documentation and record-keeping.

Security and safety concerns

Airports have always had to contend with security issues, from immigration to fire-safety, anti-terrorism, theft and smuggling operations. This has required continued evolution of screening systems, cameras, staff access control and multiple layers of analytics software.

This translates to private cellular in a number of ways:

  • Desire to update legacy critical communications systems (e.g. TETRA radios) to more-capable LTE or 5G equivalents, to enable data, video and other applications.
  • Requirement for networks with a bias towards data uplink rather than downlink, especially for HD video and other security  This may mean a preference for separate frequencies to the public networks, in order to accommodate a different mix of up/down traffic.
  • Involvement of a wide range of systems integrators and critical communications specialists with a long history of deploying reliable wireless  Many are adopting 4G and 5G skill-sets internally.
  • Requirement for 100% coverage of the airport environment, both indoors and outdoors as far as the perimeter fence. This may be outside the coverage of many public networks, especially for higher-frequency 5G

Complex wireless environment

It is important to recognise that airfields have a huge array of different technology systems, many of which depend on radio communications or other electromagnetic use-cases. Some of these – such as radars – can occupy frequency bands quite close to those used for 4G or 5G mobile. There are also assorted niche applications, for air traffic control, critical communications among ground workers and emergency services, satellite connectivity for aircraft, scientific instruments for weather forecasting and many others. Wi-Fi is used intensively, both inside the terminal and across some outdoor areas. Some airports have sections used by the military as well as civil aviation, with yet another group of radio types and frequencies employed.

This has several implications:

  • Unlike many other sites, cellular communications is not the most important use of spectrum  Mobile networks – whether public or private – need to fit alongside a huge variety of other services and functions.
  • Some frequency bands that are offered by regulators on a local basis for private 4G/5G may not be available for licensing at airports, as there may be important incumbent users.
  • Airports take increasing interest in overall spectrum management tools, as well as site surveys and the ability to intervene rapidly in case of problems.
  • The aviation industry has a large number of wireless and RF specialists, some of whom are likely to be cross-trained in cellular  This makes it more capable than many sectors to adopt private networks rather than always relying on public MNO service.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Since early 2020, the aviation and airline sector has been decimated by travel restrictions imposed because of the pandemic. Traffic and passenger levels at many airports fell to 20% of pre-pandemic levels or lower. However, as vaccination programs enable the re-opening of travel, growth is starting to occur again.

Various after-effects of the pandemic will increase the need for automation, connectivity and communications. There are new security-checks on vaccination and testing status, more cameras for fever-detection and mask-compliance, automated sanitising of surfaces and much more. Many airports have needed to reconfigure the layouts of their terminals to accommodate testing centres, facilitate social distancing, or sometimes close areas in order to reduce costs. This puts a premium on wireless connectivity that can be adapt to new circumstances rapidly.

Another impact of the last 2 years has been growth in the importance of cargo shipments, from both dedicated freight terminals and in commercial airliners. This has led to new warehouse facilities being constructed, as well as different types of asset tracking and loading vehicles being employed. Again, this has driven the need for better connectivity.

Table of content

  • Executive Summary
    • Overview
    • Recommendations for Airport Operators & Airlines
    • Recommendations for Mobile Operators
    • Recommendations for Regulators & Policymakers
    • Recommendations for Vendors
  • Introduction
    • Sector trends and drivers affecting private networks
  • Evolving airport use-cases for 4G/5G
    • Understanding airports’ layout
    • Background: Public cellular at airports
    • From public to private connectivity: growth in B2B wireless
    • Specific use-cases for private 4G / 5G at airports
  • Airports – a subset of “campus” networks
    • Characteristics of campus networks
    • Adjacent trends
    • Campus networks: who is responsible?
  • Building & operating airport private networks
    • Supply-side evolution for airport networks
    • Airport stakeholders
    • Monetisation opportunities
    • Airport private network case studies
    • Can public 5G network slicing work instead of private 5G?
    • Where does Wi-Fi & other wireless technology fit?

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Private networks: Lessons so far and what next

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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