PARTNER CONTENT: At a webinar on Paving the Way Toward Digital Transformation sponsored by ZTE, panellists highlighted how private 5G networks are now able to meet the diversified application requirements of enterprises in the Industry 4.0 era.

Private networks are a key focus of many operators’ 5G trials as they search for new revenue opportunities beyond their macro networks catering to consumers. The interest in private infrastructure is being fuelled in large part by the accelerated deployment of 5G networks worldwide.

A study by Ookla and GlobalData found 163 operators deployed 5G infrastructure, with the vast majority based on non-standalone (NSA), which is heavily reliant on LTE.

Specifically, private networks are growing rapidly, and most of the activity today has been with LTE. But that is changing rapidly as deployments move beyond mobile broadband to applications and use cases requiring the low latency and very high reliability 5G offers, such as AR, VR and robotics, said Glen Hunt, principal analyst for telecom technology and software at GlobalData.

Private networks are now one of the fastest growing sectors, with the GSMA and 5G Americas forecasting the addressable market by industries at $57.6 billion between 2019 and 2025.

This year is expected to be the breakthrough year, with the market estimated to nearly double year-on-year to $7.4 billion and then jump to $17 billion in 2022.

The main industries driving that growth are utilities, oil and gas, mining, healthcare and public services.

Hunt explained that what is creating this momentum is the fact that each of these verticals can’t require unique infrastructure. “Perhaps it’s unique in terms of the use case and some of the applications, but a solid generic infrastructure capable of being configured and sized correctly to meet the application requirements is what is necessary.”

This applies to all industry verticals, which is why the forecasts are so rosy.

With 5G accelerating worldwide and huge investments made in the construction, Wang Xiaoming, technical director of RAN Product Line at ZTE, asked how will the networks generate new revenue for operators? This is the key challenge given that the B2B sector is characterised by fragmented needs, which means catering to the personalised requirements of enterprises.

“We know 5G is about more than mobile. It’s an enabler of the digital economy, supporting a connected and intelligent society. Moving from the traditional consumer sector into vertical market is both a challenge and the opportunity.”

He said it starts with deployment of an optimised 5G network, with high operational efficiency.

Yang Rui, technical director of Telecom Cloud and Core Networks at ZTE, said the company is focused on delivering private 5G networks that are flexible to customise, simple to operate, with a low cost to get started using a network platform based on a cloud-native 5G core.

She explained there are four typical ways to deploy a private 5G system. The first is using a fully dedicated end-to-end network; the second features a dedicated core with a shared RAN; the third offers a dedicated user plane function and multi-access edge computing with shared RAN and control plane; and the last makes use of a fully shared public network using ‘soft’ slicing.

All options have a cloud core network at the centre and are converged from 2G to 5G, and even support fixed networks.

Keeping it simple
Jason Tu, principal scientist for NFV/SDN Products at ZTE, highlighted the best way for small and medium-sided enterprise to have a dedicated network is to move to a private 5G, but from a business point of view, 5G is still has major challenges, the most significant being it is too complicated.

“We have RAN, we have transmission, we have core networks and so much software that needs to be updated and then maintain all the data. Enterprises have to focus on their own business, not on 5G.”

The second challenge is spectrum, which is certainly available to large organisations with resources but SMEs don’t have the funds. Tu suggested these companies tap private 5G network offerings from operators as a managed service.

“Enterprises then don’t have to worry about purchasing spectrum, updates and maintenance. This is the most efficient way, because all the frequency, network and transmission resources can be share by many companies.”

To address the many challenges of B2B network operations and maintenance, ZTE developed a set tools to improve the efficiency of virtual private networks to match that of physical private networks, which have advanced network planning procedures. The company also increased user experience measurements from only bandwidth to three dimensions: bandwidth, latency and reliability.

Business model
Hunt noted in the past operators built infrastructure and charged for it as customers used it, adding: “I think that model is a little broken right now… things need to move a lot faster.” Funding in the future will likely come from multiple sources, including enterprises and operators.

Yang agreed, noting traditional charging methods were limited, giving operators the choice of flat fees or volume-based charging. “With the determinist features of 5G, SLA-related parameters can also be taken into account. Things like latency, reliability, location and bandwidth. Multi-dimension billing templates can be defined and calculate the charging rate accordingly.”

Hunt argued past attempts to introduce private networks have been fragmented, because they have been proprietary, lack robust security as well as had reliability and performance issues.

“5G changes all that with significant increases in all those areas, and the infrastructure is built on some pretty strong standards,” he stated, noting 3GPP has done a great job of producing standards that are workable. And that work hasn’t been done in a vacuum – “it’s done that in concert with operators and vendors”.

Tu gave the example of China Mobile, which rolled out its standalone 5G network nearly a year ago, moving in that direction. It introducing three private 5G network options for enterprises, with a range of pricing models.

The first is based on network slicing using shared macro RAN, transmission and core networks. It is completely software based and the most economical. Plan two, the priciest option, offers dedicated hardware for cutting-edge applications, such as autonomous cars and robotics requiring both high reliability and low latency. The RAN, transmission and core are not shared.

The third is a hybrid option, with the RAN, the most difficult element to implement, running on the public network, but the core is handled by a dedicated network.

“China Mobile has an aggressive plan to push this business model to generate new revenue from the enterprise side, with the help of standalone 5G and network slicing. They are marketing private network as a service,” Tu said.