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Private 4G/5G Networks: Setting Up Your Own Secure Wireless Infrastructure

Private wireless networks are local cellular networks built by enterprises to serve a limited geographic area such as an office, factory floor, or campus. Unlike traditional mobile carrier networks that are shared by many subscribers, private networks are dedicated to a single entity's users and devices.





Private 4G LTE and 5G networks provide enterprises with increased speed, lower latency, improved security, and greater control compared to WiFi or public carrier networks. They enable mobility and retain cellular capabilities natively for Internet of Things devices. Key benefits include:

  • Dedicated capacity that is not shared with other organizations

  • Ability to prioritize critical applications and users

  • Lower and more predictable latency

  • Higher reliability and security

  • Customization of network capabilities as needed

  • Local control of network data and operations


Private networks are seeing rapid adoption across industries like manufacturing, transportation, utilities, mining, and energy. They support use cases such as autonomous robots, asset tracking, video surveillance, AR/VR, and remote control of machinery.

According to industry research, the global market for private LTE/5G networks is projected to grow at over 15% CAGR, reaching around $5.7 billion by 2024. Key drivers include spectrum availability, maturing ecosystem, faster deployment models, and rising enterprise digitalization. With 5G, new enterprise use cases will emerge around massive IoT, industrial automation, and mission-critical applications.


Network Infrastructure Requirements


Deploying a private LTE or 5G network requires several key infrastructure components and considerations around deployment models.

Cell Sites

Private wireless networks rely on small cell radios, similar to public carrier networks. Small cells provide targeted coverage for specific areas like buildings, campuses, or venues. Macro cell towers can also be used to provide wider area coverage if required. The number of small cells needed depends on the coverage area and capacity requirements.

Controllers

The small cell radios connect into a centralized controller which manages the network configuration, performance, and security. Controllers can be purpose-built hardware, virtualized network functions, or provided through cloud platforms.

Core Network

A core network for user authentication, traffic routing, and interconnect is required. Options include an on-premises Evolved Packet Core (EPC), a virtual EPC, or a cloud-hosted core. The core integrates with the business's other networking infrastructure.

Spectrum Usage

Private LTE and 5G can leverage unlicensed, shared, or licensed spectrum bands:

  • Unlicensed spectrum like CBRS provides shared spectrum but networks must co-exist with other unlicensed users and wifi.

  • Licensed spectrum provides interference protection but requires acquiring exclusive licensed spectrum.

  • On-premises vs hosted models allow for different levels of control versus simplicity.

Carefully evaluating spectrum schemes, deployment models, and core integration allows an optimized private network design.


Spectrum Options and Licensing


Many companies operating private 4G or 5G cellular networks have multiple spectrum options to consider. The three main types of licensed spectrum are:

·       Licensed Bands: These are exclusively licensed to a single operator, such as AT&T or Verizon, for a specific geographic region in blocks like 700 MHz or 1.9 GHz spectrum. Companies need to either partner with a public carrier or purchase licenses at auction to use these bands.

·       Shared Bands: With shared licensing, multiple users can access the same frequencies in designated areas. The most widely adopted shared spectrum is the 3.5 GHz CBRS band in the USA. The CBRS approach uses a spectrum access system (SAS) and prioritized access tiers to dynamically coordinate shared federal/commercial use.

·       Unlicensed Bands: Unlicensed spectrum bands like 5 GHz or 6 GHz don't require a license but are open for anyone to use with certain power limits and technical operating rules. The range is more limited than licensed bands. Wi-Fi typically uses unlicensed frequencies.

The total cost of acquiring licensed spectrum varies widely based on factors like population density, existing incumbents, bandwidth, and license term length. Exclusive licenses can cost tens to hundreds of millions of dollars for significant coverage. By comparison, the shared CBRS model has drastically lower costs in the thousands to tens of thousands range.

Companies need to evaluate factors like use case, required quality of service, coverage area, and total network capacity when deciding between licensed, shared, or unlicensed options. In some cases, a hybrid model with both dedicated licensed spectrum and shared bands delivers the best tradeoff. Regulations also differ considerably around the world, so global enterprises need to consider the country-specific licensing frameworks.


Network Design and Architecture


Proper network design and architecture is crucial for the performance and reliability of private wireless networks. Factors that need to be considered include coverage, capacity, user density, physical topology, and integration with existing infrastructure.

Coverage

Coverage requirements depend on the geographic area that needs to be served by the private network. For outdoor deployments over a large campus or facility, careful planning is needed for the number and placement of base stations or small cells to ensure seamless wireless coverage across the whole property. Indoor networks require dense deployments of small cells or Wi-Fi access points to penetrate walls and ceilings. Site surveys help determine optimal access point locations and antenna configurations.

Capacity

Capacity requirements are driven by the number of users and their traffic demands on the network. This includes both downlink and uplink capacity needs. Higher user densities or bandwidth-intensive applications require greater capacity through additional spectrum or more infrastructure. Load balancing techniques can be used to distribute traffic efficiently across the network. Setting user priority levels ensures critical applications get precedence.

Integration with Existing Networks

Most private wireless networks need to interconnect with existing enterprise networks, IT systems, and public networks. This requires proper IP networking design, security protocols, and gateways to enable traffic flow between the private wireless network and other networks. QoS marking and VLAN configuration helps classify traffic types and enforce management policies.


Deployment Considerations


When deploying a private wireless network, there are several key factors to consider regarding the rollout strategy:

Phased Rollout vs Widescale Deployment

Many organizations take a phased approach when deploying a private network, starting with a limited pilot in a single location or application before expanding more widely. This allows them to test performance, work out any issues, and build the business case before full commitment.

However, others choose to deploy their network across all sites and use cases simultaneously. This widescale deployment requires more upfront planning and investment but can accelerate ROI. The right approach depends on the organization's needs, resources, and risk tolerance.

Using Existing Infrastructure vs New Build

Private networks can leverage existing infrastructure like power, real estate, and fiber backhaul to reduce costs. Organizations with extensive existing infrastructure may opt to build their network using these legacy assets.

Alternatively, some choose to deploy new infrastructure purpose-built for their private network. While more capital-intensive initially, this allows full optimization and future-proofing. Hybrid approaches are also possible.

On-Premises vs Edge Cloud Deployment

Private networks can be deployed fully on-premises, hosted in edge cloud nodes, or a hybrid of both. On-premises deployments provide maximum control but require local real estate and staff. Edge cloud nodes deploy key network functions at distributed edge locations while centralizing others in cloud infrastructure. This can reduce costs while still providing low latency.

The optimal deployment model depends on the use case mix, geographic footprint, and desired degree of external cloud integration. Monitoring and management can be unified across infrastructure types.


Network Security


Security is a top concern when deploying private wireless networks. Companies need to implement comprehensive solutions to protect network traffic and data.

Encryption and VPNs

All traffic on private networks should be encrypted through methods like VPNs or TLS/SSL encryption. This prevents outside parties from intercepting and reading data.Encryption protocols like AES or Triple DES should be utilized.

Firewalls

Firewalls monitor and control network traffic based on predefined security rules. They prevent unauthorized access and block malicious attacks. Firewalls can filter traffic based on IP address, protocol, port number and more.

Identity and Access Management

Robust authentication mechanisms should control access to the network. Solutions like two-factor authentication, single sign-on, and role-based access controls restrict network utilization to authorized personnel only.

Data Security Compliance

Private networks must comply with data security regulations like HIPAA for healthcare, PCI DSS for payment card data, and more. Companies should implement auditing, data loss prevention, and other tools to satisfy compliance requirements.

In summary, private wireless networks require end-to-end security spanning encryption, access controls, firewalls, VPNs, and compliance with applicable data regulations. Partnering with experienced vendors or managed service providers can help ensure networks are properly secured.


Operations and Management


Effective operations and management are crucial for ensuring optimal performance of private wireless networks. Here are some key considerations:

·       Remote monitoring and control - Private networks allow enterprises to monitor and control the network remotely. This enables IT teams to track network health, detect issues proactively, and apply configurations or updates remotely without needing to be physically present.

·       Performance optimization - Analytics capabilities in private networks provide visibility into metrics like spectrum utilization, traffic flows, device performance etc. This data can be used to fine tune network parameters and optimize performance. Features like self-organizing-networks and zero-touch provisioning automate several optimization tasks.

·       Integration with IT systems - Private networks can be integrated with existing IT infrastructure using standard interfaces and APIs. This allows seamless management alongside wired networks and IT applications. Integration enables unified monitoring, automation, security policies etc. across wireless and wired domains.

Proper operations and management ensures optimal uptime, performance, efficiency and security of private networks. It enables enterprises to maximize their technology investments. With built-in automation and ease of integration with existing IT systems, private networks simplify the management experience for IT teams.


Use Cases by Industry


Private wireless networks enable digital transformation for organizations across industries like manufacturing, energy, transportation, healthcare, retail, and more. Here are some real-world examples and use cases:

Manufacturing

Manufacturing facilities are leveraging private 5G networks to enable smart factories with capabilities like autonomous mobile robots, predictive maintenance, augmented reality, and real-time automation. BMW's plant in Germany uses a private 5G network to coordinate logistics with automated guided vehicles.

Energy

Power plants and renewable energy providers are using private LTE networks for monitoring and automation across remote, expansive service areas. Exelon Corporation deployed a private LTE network across 4 solar energy sites in Maryland covering over 1,500 acres.

Transportation

Airports, seaports, railways, and logistic hubs manage complex vehicle and asset tracking by deploying on-premise 4G and 5G networks. The Port of Hamburg uses private 5G for traffic control, infrastructure monitoring, and logistics automation.

Retail

Large retail chains are implementing private networks in warehouses and stores for IoT applications, inventory management, loss prevention and more. Walmart uses private LTE networks in over 250 distribution centers for tracking inventory.

Healthcare

Private networks enable reliable, secure connectivity for telehealth, remote patient monitoring, and medical asset tracking across healthcare organizations and campuses. Several hospitals have deployed private networks for low latency IoT applications.

In summary, private wireless networks are enabling transformation across industries with business-critical wireless connectivity tailored to unique needs. Real-world implementations highlight the benefits and diverse use cases.


Vendor Landscape


The private wireless network market features major telecom equipment vendors like Nokia, Ericsson, and Huawei that provide the core network components and radio access network technology. These vendors have long track records building carrier-grade cellular networks globally. Their solutions are field proven and can be tailored for enterprise environments.

In addition to the telecom vendors, large IT integrators like IBM, Accenture, and Deloitte play a key role. Their expertise lies in designing, deploying, and integrating private wireless with the enterprise's overall IT architecture. They can customize the networks to achieve the desired functionality.

Managed service providers have also emerged in this space. Operators like Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile offer private network solutions bundled with design, implementation, optimization and managed services such as network monitoring and maintenance. This can lower the operational burden for enterprises.

The vendor ecosystem offers enterprises multiple paths to procure and deploy private networks. Whether building in-house or outsourcing, there are trusted partners to create a networking solution aligned to the company's needs and use cases.


Future Outlook


Private 5G networks are still in the early stages of adoption, but hold tremendous promise for enabling new applications and improving enterprise operations. As the technology continues to evolve, several key trends will shape the future outlook for private 5G:

Transition to 5G Standalone

Many early private 5G deployments are based on 5G Non-Standalone architecture, which relies on an LTE core. However, 5G Standalone architecture delivers the full benefits of 5G including ultra-low latency, network slicing, and advanced security. As standards and equipment mature, most private 5G networks will migrate to a 5G Standalone architecture over the next 2-3 years. This will enable new 5G-native applications.

Evolution Beyond 5G

While 5G is still being rolled out, researchers are already working on the next generation of cellular technology, 6G. 6G is expected to bring even higher bandwidth, lower latency, and the ability to connect massive numbers of IoT devices. Concepts like cell-free architectures and AI-defined networking could become reality in 6G. While commercial 6G networks are still a decade away, private network operators should stay abreast of these advancements.

New Use Cases and Applications

5G will enable many new wireless applications that are simply not possible on 4G networks. For enterprises, the most transformative use cases will likely be industrial automation, drone-based inspection and analytics, AR/VR collaboration, and real-time analytics. As costs come down, private 5G will also see adoption in sectors like healthcare, education, and entertainment. The capabilities of 6G networks will open the door for innovative applications that we can't yet envision.

Improving ROI

While the upfront costs of deploying private 5G are still high, the ROI models will improve significantly as hardware costs, spectrum licensing, and standardization mature over time. Economies of scale will cut hardware costs, shared spectrum access will lower licensing costs, and pre-integrated network platforms will simplify deployment and operations. Private network operators should closely track these cost trends when building their business case. For many, the benefits of increased productivity and new revenue opportunities will justify the investment in 5G.


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