Virgin Media O2 gets to grips with private network challenges

Virgin Media O2 (VM O2) Business has been slowly but steadily building momentum in the area of private wireless networks for enterprise users in the past few years, with recent announcements including claims to be the first U.K. telco to offer a portable commercial 5G standalone (SA) private network with plug-and-play capability.

Elsewhere, the operator has publicly announced at least two private network customer partnerships: a multi-site private 4G network with British Sugar; and a private 5G network with South London and Maudsley National Health Service (NHS) Foundation Trust. It is working with Nokia as a strategic partner in both projects, while the portable product uses Nokia Digital Automation Cloud (DAC) and Nokia MX Industrial Edge (MXIE).

Like many operators, VM O2 Business continues to see significant opportunity in the private 4G and 5G market, although analysts at IDC suggested recently that growth has been slower than expected. In late 2022, Analysys Mason predicted that spending on private networks would reach $7.7 billion by this point. But, IDC now forecasts that worldwide revenues for private LTE/5G infrastructure will reach $5.2 billion in 2027.

The task of operators and vendors is to try and help overcome some of the complexities inherent in the deployment of private networks. Sandeep Raithatha, head of strategy, innovation & 5G IoT at VM O2 Business, stressed that it is important to “take a step back from a technology lens and … not get too carried away” with the idea that 5G is going to be the answer to everything, for example.

Speaking on a panel during Talking Telecoms Week, Raithatha said it’s always best to start by asking, what is the business problem that you’re trying to solve, “because those compelling problems are really what’s driving market take-up and interest now.”

For example, he said, “Is it going to be trying to improve your worker health and safety? Are you going to be trying to drive better operational efficiencies in your production line? Are you trying to drive more automation or resilience for longer term planning?” 

Once you have determined the problem you want to solve, “you can then start thinking about what are the right solutions, and often those solutions will be quite wide and varying,” he said. 

For example, an operator can offer either 4G or 5G technology as well as different implementations including a standalone private network at a single site, or a hybrid network covering multiple sites. Raithatha noted that operators can also offer a “slice of the network” to offer “dedicated control over bandwidth” in cases where coverage is required for a “broader geography.”

Longer term, he said, “we could expose, via APIs, the ability to activate a network slice to create … a prioritized service on the network.”

Raithatha observed that the type of private network will also depend on the customer. “Vertical sectors, whether it’s transport, manufacturing, or healthcare, all have a slightly different set of requirements,” he said, while also emphasizing the need to create scalable and repeatable solutions that can be easily deployed. 

“It’s definitely going to be an area where we will see growth, in addition to the core business that the operators will be offering today,” he said. “The operators that are investing early, engaging with customers, providing those proof points, will be the ones that benefit, and having that understanding that it’s just not one operator, or one provider, that’s going to create an end-to-end solution. So it’s important that we, as an industry, build the right partnerships … so we can deliver a complete solution to our customers as well.”