The private 5G market is growing for infrastructure vendors and operators around the globe.
A private cellular network is a local wireless network that uses small cells or microtowers — as well as core network servers — to deliver secure connectivity to a specific company in a circumscribed area, often independent of national cellular service providers.
The move toward private networks started in earnest with private 4G LTE technology in 2017. In 2020 and 2021, carriers started to deploy initial 5G private networks, largely in the trial phase. The advance to the newer cellular technology is enabled by the shift to standalone 5G. This upgrade leads to a network that solely uses 5G infrastructure and doesn’t require a 4G core to operate.
Updates to the 5G New Radio (NR) standard add support for unlicensed spectrum, as well as enhance ultrareliable, low-latency communications, which is important for mission-critical applications. Both standards will become commercial in 5G hardware in 2022.
Status of private 5G deployments
Experts have found that private 5G deployments are progressing in the U.S. and around the world. Private 5G networks operate under midband frequencies, such as the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum.
“In 2021, there were about 30 U.S. private network contracts announced,” said Sandra Wendelken, senior research analyst of mobile and IoT connectivity services at IDC. “About one-third of those included a reference to 5G or an upgrade path to 5G. The majority were LTE contracts using [CBRS midband] spectrum.”
On a global scale, less than 10 of the roughly 45 publicly announced private network contracts were LTE-specific, Wendelken said. The remainder were either 5G or a hybrid of 4G LTE and 5G technologies.
“Private 5G networks seem more dominant outside the U.S., at least those announced last year,” Wendelken said. “The use cases and available spectrum help determine whether a private network deployment implements 4G or 5G technology.”
Sylwia Kechiche, principal analyst at Ookla, a network speed and data analytics firm, said countless players have entered the private 5G market in the last year. She noted Cisco’s entrance into a crowded market that already includes operators, hyperscalers, startups and equipment vendors. She added that Amazon’s entry into the private network market late in 2021 highlighted a budding movement toward collaboration with network operators.
“In some cases, AWS would work with operators to provide 5G core and edge computing capabilities, while, in other [cases], it could compete to offer end-to-end solutions,” she said.
According to Kechiche, one of the many ways to deploy a 5G private network could be to use shared spectrum, such as 3.5 GHz CBRS bandwidth in the U.S., or unlicensed spectrum for shared use. Deutsche Telekom in Germany, for example, has started to offer enterprise customers a standalone business network on its licensed spectrum as part of its new 5G campus scheme. Enterprises can expect other operators to follow in Deutsche Telekom’s footsteps with similar offers in the coming years.
Private 5G deployments progress in 2022
In 2022, private networks will become commercially available to business customers on a wide scale for the first time. Most private networks will continue to be based on 4G technology, but as the year continues, 5G will start to arrive.
“The pace of private mobile network announcements has picked up [in 2022] compared with January 2021,” Wendelken said.