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How to build a private 5G network architecture

A private 5G network could provide organizations with greater control over their wireless environments. But cost and complexity could be critical deterrents.

Just as previous generations of wireless technology had their honeymoon phases, 5G networking is currently being introduced with great fanfare to a range of potential constituents. Verizon, AT&T and their contemporaries are making early 5G pitches to their enormous consumer bases, but another 5G story is also simmering in the background.

A growing list of vendors and potential enterprise customers are contemplating how private 5G networks might reshape organizational wireless connectivity in the days and years to come. Let's talk about the high-level why and how of private 5G network architecture.

Define your 5G requirements

5G networks will be both evolutionary and revolutionary. 5G follows 4G/LTE, and brings vast improvements in performance by comparison. The promise of 5G sounds impressive, but understanding the tradeoffs to get there is important to anyone interested in implementing a private 5G network architecture.

Smaller cells, and often more of them, may complicate the potential in-house deployment of private 5G. At the same time, the control and power of a private 5G network may be compelling.

But why invest in private 5G networking? The technology is expensive, and it probably won't fully displace Wi-Fi or LAN for most environments. So, it will likely be yet another system for the budget to accommodate.

As with Wi-Fi, your requirements will drive network design. But before you proceed to the design phase, you'll need to understand what you want from a 5G network that you control. When contemplating private 5G wireless networks, consider the following questions:

  • Do you need ubiquitous coverage for devices, or just a new type of wireless backhaul?
  • 5G is often equated with blazing speeds, but can you trade larger cells and lower frequencies for not-so-blazing speeds?
  • Will most of your traffic stay within your own walls or head out to the internet?
  • What device types, capabilities and density will be in play?

All these questions and more will need to be answered before proceeding, as different organizations will have different needs. For example, industries such as manufacturing, mining, port operations and petroleum processing will likely have different needs from their private 5G networks when compared to warehousing, stadiums or municipal sensor networks.

Private 5G deployment considerations

Once you have defined the why for private 5G, the how becomes important. Most environments will need outside help to get it right. As with any network design -- and especially for wireless networks -- different network sites could have vastly different requirements. While private networks may boil down to simple line diagrams, they can be extremely complicated depending on a number of factors.

private 5G

Small cell hardware -- such as gNodeB devices and remote radio heads and their associated interconnect cabling -- form the access edge of the 5G private network. These devices need strong upstream connectivity to the LAN, and likely out to the internet as well. Clients obviously access the network as 5G radio devices, but what goes on upstream may rely on fiber, copper, microwave links, satellite or any combination of them all.

To support the strongest 5G networks, upstream connectivity will need to be scaled accordingly -- generally measured in the tens of gigabits for interfaces. The entire paradigm will need to dovetail with your existing network. As a result, switching, routing, security and core services like Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol and DNS that are tailored per organization are all in play.

Private 5G networks may well see a faster rollout rate if their ROI models solidify and more enterprises buy in.

Private 5G is part of your network, while the carriers' versions of 5G rely on their own core services. Then there are hybrid topologies that combine both private and public 5G for flexibility -- and complexity.

At the largest scale, public 5G networks will overlap 4G for many years. Mass-scale 5G simply can't be rolled out that quickly given the size and diversity of coverage areas that need to be accounted for. By contrast, private 5G networks may well see a faster rollout rate if their ROI models solidify and more enterprises buy in.

Remember, this is not a one-size-fits-all paradigm, and there will be countless permutations to the actual constructs of private 5G networks depending on what purpose they serve and what frequencies are in play.

This was last published in September 2020

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