Private network wireless deployments are either poised for a breakout year in 2022 or stuck on the hamster wheel of hype depending on who you ask, but they do represent a growing opportunity for mobile operators to cash in on those expensive 5G network build outs.

Private networks aren’t new as mobile operators have offered them to businesses for years using 4G LTE or even Wi-Fi, but private 5G networks are still nascent.

Even defining and tracking private mobile network deployments is a slippery slope because, by definition, they are intended for the sole use of private entities, including enterprises, industries and governments, according to a report release by the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) this month.

The GSA defined private mobile networks as deployments of 3GPP-based 4G LTE or 5G with contracts worth more than €100,000 ($105,900).

By those parameters, the GSA counted 68 countries and territories where operators have deployed private networks based on LTE or 5G.

In addition to mobile operators, system integrators, hyperscalers and vendors such as Ericsson, Nokia and Cisco are also working with enterprises to launch private networks.

The GSA tallied more than 50 equipment vendors that have entered the private mobile network arena to supply equipment for private mobile networks based on 4G or 5G.

“Private cellular creates a whole new competitive landscape,” Jason Inskeep, Assistant VP for 5G and Private 5G Centre of Excellence at AT&T told Mobile World Live (MWL).

The GSA identified more than 70 telecom network operators (which included national operators within the same group as distinct entities) that were involved with private mobile network projects.

Adding to the private network debate, some enterprises with large IT departments that create their own data want to manage those private networks themselves, especially in countries such as the US where CBRS spectrum, for example, is shared.

The case against private networks
In a recent blog post on LinkedIn, Tom Nolle, president and founder of consultancy CIMI, argued the average enterprise “has no solid reason to consider private 5G.”

He noted to MWL most enterprise applications don’t justify private 5G at all and Wi-Fi would do as well or better, and at less cost.

In addition to Wi-Fi, he stated private LTE would be a better option for enterprises.

“Private LTE fits in because it’s hard to see how private 5G would be justified for an organisation that didn’t at least seriously consider, if not adopt, private LTE,” he remarked.

The case for private networks
Nolle said private 5G networks from mobile operators would be a good option for enterprises depending on whether there was value in integrating public 5G with private 5G, the geographic scope of the application and the total number of users

“The more any or all of these factors apply, the more the telcos have a shot,” he advised.

Inskeep told MWL there was a lot of interest in private networks across the industry in three areas: industrial; outdoor environments (where AT&T can leverage its licensed spectrum); and indoor manufacturing where private networks lower the cost per square foot of connectivity.

He said the first step for private network migration was moving customers off Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet to mobile.

“What we find is there’s an immediate step change in just going to a new cellular construct,” Inskeep said. “With 5G, we’re just on the precipice of all the functionality.”

Masum Mir, VP and general manager for Cisco’s Mobile, Cable and IoT business, reckons the next twelve months will be key for private 5G networks as operators and vendors develop a better understanding of enterprise devices with native 5G capabilities.

Over the coming year, select industries such as manufacturing will start to build their 5G ecosystems, which would also include elevated security control for the enterprises seeking to manage their own private networks.

Mir stated he sees private network adoption across three areas: digital asset tracking; digital venues; and autonomous manufacturing.

“Faster digitisation is going to drive adoption and our belief is that adoption will accelerate when we can bring 5G technology hand-in-hand with the evolution to WiFi6.”

Rather than focusing on if 5G would be a good option, Mir said Cisco worked with customers on finding the correct business outcome first, a viewpoint echoed by incoming Verizon Business CEO Sowmyanarayan Sampath, who outlined three drivers for private 5G networks: the reshoring of manufacturing; more e-commerce in warehouses; and more pressure on cost in locations such as factories.

Sampath told MWL a warehouse could go from 150 Wi-Fi access points to six or seven private network nodes, which in turn would lower the cost.

Some of Verizon Business’ customers such as WeWork want to start with 5G private networks while others are on a path to migrate from 4G to 5G once their device ecosystems are upgraded.

He noted Verizon Business currently has hundreds of private 5G networks either in the works or deployed: “2022 is the year of private networks becoming mainstream.”

With the need for better security, the ever-increasing amounts of data, deployments of mobile edge compute with cloud providers and the digitalisation of industries, real-world private wireless deployments with enterprise customers will ramp over the coming year, but private 5G networks are likely to remain the domain of the most sophisticated enterprises in the near term.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.