LTE dominates private networks, but 5G is coming: Special Report

Some folks may be wondering if it’s worth waiting for 5G to be fully baked before jumping on the private networking bandwagon or to go ahead with LTE deployments that are, presumably, software upgradeable to 5G.

That’s one of the topics expected to come up during Fierce’s Private Wireless Networks Summit May 10-11. A panel discussion on Monday kicks off the summit with a peek at what to expect in 2021 and beyond.

“My opinion is they shouldn’t wait,” said Kyung Mun, principal analyst at Mobile Experts, of enterprises contemplating a private wireless network. Of course, it will depend on the specific application or problem the enterprise is trying to solve with the private network, and they need to check with their vendors to make sure their equipment is software upgradable. Many products from Tier 1 vendors are upgradeable to 5G, he noted.

Nokia offers 5G Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS)-certified radios and has the ability to commercialize a private wireless 5G CBRS system. However, the most important element around private wireless is the industrial ecosystem needed for these networks to be operational and bring value, said Stephane Daeuble, head of solutions marketing for Nokia’s enterprise business.

That’s still a bit of a waiting game. 5G standalone (SA) is the starting point for the type of architecture needed for 5G private wireless industrial features, and much of the standardization work is still going on to complete the feature sets that started in Release 16, he said. As the standards are completed, chipset vendors will need to create chipset ranges that support these industrial features, so testing and trials can start to validate the technology and industrial applications, according to Daeuble.

In the U.S., T-Mobile launched its SA network last year, but AT&T and Verizon are still deploying theirs.

For now, most private wireless systems deployed today are “4.9G/LTE-based,” Daeuble said. Nokia’s private wireless systems became 5G-capable last year, so 5G can be added to existing LTE networks when the ecosystem is ripe and the first 5G use cases start to come along. Interestingly, most analysts predict that 5G private wireless won’t overtake 4.9G/LTE until the 2029-2030 timeframe, he said.

Federated Wireless expects 5G will be commercially deployed on CBRS in the fourth quarter of this year. The company, which runs a Spectrum Access System (SAS), is involved in 5G trials with customers, and it’s also deploying 5G for the Department of Defense (DoD).  

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Because 5G infrastructure is available through various OEMs and many of them offer software upgradability, the path to 5G on the equipment side is really a non-issue, according to Kurt Schaubach, CTO for Federated Wireless.

The big issue for commercial deployment is device availability. ODMs have 5G devices in various form factors, such as modules or USB devices, but commercial availability of 5G CBRS from the biggest smartphone and tablet ODMs is yet to come, Schaubach said. New device releases slated for this fall are expected to support 5G CBRS.

5G appeals to IT staff

Vinay Dhar, SVP of business development at Mavenir, which works with clients around the world, said private 5G already is being deployed in territories that have enabled spectrum access frameworks for private use.

There are a lot of advantages that come with 5G, he said. For example, 5G is cloud native, and it’s designed with IT principles in mind; therefore, it’s simple for enterprise IT staff to deploy, operate and support.

As for what impact the pandemic is having on private networks, “it’s a double-edged sword,” Dhar said. On one hand, some 3GPP standards work slowed down because it takes longer to resolve conflicts in a virtual world versus in-person meetings.

On the other hand, the pandemic increased the desire on the part of some enterprises to automate rather than have people be physically close to one another. If the pandemic has brought anything to light, “it’s basically the urgency for every industry and every enterprise to accelerate their digitization process,” Dhar said.

5G is not a great deal more expensive than 4G and brings with it a strong Industrial IoT feature set, including enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB), Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communication (URLLC) and massive Machine Type Communications (MTC), according to Dhar.

Automation has been happening in manufacturing for the last 20 years, “I think what 5G will do is to really enable that automation even more,” Dhar said.