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What are private 5G networks and could they emerge as a major trend?

In some network environments, businesses may need broader connection options for devices and automation. Private 5G networks, at some point, might be the answer.

The world of wireless is teeming with activity right now. Wi-Fi 6 and 5G are dominating networking headlines with speculation on which one will win a battle for dominance. In reality, both will likely do well in different scenarios. Amid the hubbub, however, an interesting niche could at least cut into Wi-Fi's market share, and that is private 5G networks.

The 5G that services your phone and car will be up on towers that dot the landscape -- nothing mystical there. But, in factories, mines and other challenging environments, many people are contemplating making a connectivity change for connected robots, machinery, sensors and automation controls. In these spaces, Wi-Fi 6, or 802.11ax, may be passed over at upgrade time in favor of 5G equipment that services only a given corporate space. We're talking about private 5G networks.

What's the appeal? As good as Wi-Fi continues to get, it can be spotty, short range, unwieldy for highly mobile devices and subject to the whims of the fickle 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz spectrums. Good design helps, but implementation of 802.11 standards can involve a lot of variability. And strong emphasis on backward compatibility in 802.11 can be detrimental in places.

Several industrial bigwigs, like European automakers, are pretty open about their private 5G testing and potential interest. 5G's promised low latency, proven roaming methodologies and support for different client types as desired by the private network owner are often cited as significant draws to the technology.

It's safe to wager that private 5G networks will gain traction.

However, the potential for private 5G networks is still in its infancy. A lot of things need to be worked out, and private 5G networks are riddled with questions, including:

  • Will private 5G hardware work in licensed frequencies, unlicensed or both?
  • How hard will it be to get access to licensed spectrum for private networks?
  • Will private networks be designed and supported in-house? Or will they require specialization from outside companies?
  • Will private 5G network capabilities be consistent across regulatory domains?

Clearly, there's a lot to ponder, especially since 5G isn't really here yet. But there is enough buzz and evaluation afoot that it's safe to wager that private 5G networks will gain traction and make an already exciting space that much more interesting.

This was last published in May 2019

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Why would you want to build your own private 5G network?
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