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How and when to establish enterprise 5G partnerships

Enterprises that buy 5G public services, procure network slices or build their own private 5G networks need to establish the right partnerships for mobile services, equipment and software.

Once enterprises understand why they want to deploy 5G technology and what kind of 5G services they need, it's time to explore the 5G partnerships that will help them launch those services. Each of these partners -- which range from mobile operators to big cloud providers (or web-scale companies) to device vendors and software companies -- will play a role in the organization's 5G evolution.

As an organization moves toward becoming a 5G enterprise, it will need three specific things:

  1. The devices the organization's 5G applications will use
  2. Some form of 5G services
  3. 5G applications, as well as the platforms and private network features those applications require

Enterprises need two sets of possible partners during a 5G enterprise project: One for the applications and devices used for the 5G service, and the other for the 5G services themselves. These partners will play various roles throughout the process of 5G implementation, helping enterprises with integration and support, among other things.

Choosing 5G devices

The devices enterprises choose will connect to their 5G services and have a close relationship with their 5G applications. The devices will be used for mobile GUI platforms and they must match the applications, especially if the organization uses IoT sensors and controllers. Organizations should start exploring these roles and relationships with 5G devices, as well as the relationships and constraints between themselves and their 5G partners.

The devices enterprises choose will connect to their 5G services and have a close relationship with the 5G applications.

5G requires special devices for connection, so most current phones, tablets, dongles, hubs and printers aren't compatible with 5G. Because 5G can use an exceptionally wide range of frequencies, it's important to match the devices to the specific 5G spectrum the organization's service will use, not just to 5G capabilities in general. Enterprises that plan to use their own spectrum or unlicensed 5G spectrum must be especially careful because device compatibility may be problematic.

If enterprises want to use public 5G or 5G network slice services from public 5G operators, they should validate the compatibility of the devices and the service on the three following points:

  1. Find out if the prospective 5G providers support the specific device.
  2. Clarify whether the device providers support the service.
  3. Check the service and device specifications for compatibility.

If any discrepancies surface at this point, it's better to resolve them at the beginning.

Buying enterprise 5G services

The preferred route for enterprises buying 5G services is to contract for them from a mobile operator. The two 5G services options are to acquire public 5G services under an enterprise contract or to acquire a 5G network slice. Whichever option an organization picks, it makes sense to start by making a list of providers that serve its primary market areas, then compare features and prices.

5G capacity and latency aren't standardized, but if the organization's applications are based on these service characteristics, it will need strong service-level agreements (SLAs) to guarantee its needs will be met. Mobile-service SLAs won't cover roaming to other operators, so it's critical to cover the company's geography with operators under contract with the business.

If an enterprise is interested in buying a network slice, or if one or more operators recommend it as a way of ensuring proper quality of service, the organization needs to be aware that network slices and services available within the slice are extremely operator-specific. Issues may crop up when roaming away from the primary operator while using a network slice. Organizations need to take the time to understand what the provider is offering and how it will work if some users are outside the prime coverage area of the company's 5G operator.

5G partnerships
Carefully assess your potential 5G partners and providers to ensure they meet requirements for your 5G applications and devices.

How to build a private 5G network

If an enterprise decides to build its own 5G infrastructure, it's best to assemble the 5G service requirements for the needed devices and then set them aside for use when picking technologies and partners for its own 5G network. The roles of integrator and support provider are critical, and someone inside the enterprise will be the default choice if the role isn't assigned to a partner.

The differences in 5G from previous wireless networks may affect the existing enterprise network, meaning VPNs and even the data center network. If the organization's applications are expected to generate more traffic, the company will need to trace the workflows from the edge to the data center to ensure the networks have enough capacity for the workflows in transit. In most cases, data center networks will be fine, but VPN capacity may need to be added in sites where 5G could increase traffic significantly.

While a network slice provides an almost-private 5G network, it won't be fully private unless an organization builds its own network. To build a 5G network, enterprises have to address four specific areas:

  1. spectrum for the radio network;
  2. 5G infrastructure to provide the required features and interfaces;
  3. small cells or microcells to transmit and receive; and
  4. interconnected facilities to link the private 5G network to the public mobile network, if required.

Spectrum. Spectrum for 5G is country-dependent, but shared, unlicensed or allocated spectrum also may be available. Unlicensed spectrum is useful only for local 5G -- such as a campus or facility -- so if an organization's needs go beyond smart facilities and industrial control, enterprises probably need a spectrum license. Often, it's easier to get spectrum from a local operator than to bid for it in public auctions sponsored by governments. This step shouldn't be minimized because spectrum is necessary everywhere the organization plans to deploy its 5G network.

5G infrastructure: Using a major vendor. Enterprises building their own 5G private networks have two choices for acquiring the rest of their infrastructure: use a major 5G vendor or assemble a private 5G network. With the first option, enterprises go to one of the major 5G vendors used by the mobile operators themselves, such as Ericsson or Nokia. These vendors can offer a total package, with plenty of professional services to back it up. If price or vendor lock-in aren't a concern, this is the best choice. But enterprises should engage with people who specialize in selling to enterprises within vendor organizations, not the carrier sales force because the issues are different than those of network operators moving to 5G.

5G infrastructure: Assembling a private network. With the second option, enterprises assemble the private 5G network from the specific elements, like small cells, infrastructure and interconnect. For most enterprises, a good starting point is to work with one of the big public cloud providers -- or web-scale companies -- such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft. These companies may be willing to play the role of integrator and even provide support.

The preferred route for enterprises buying 5G services is to contract for them from a mobile operator.

All these web-scale providers offer a range of 5G feature-hosting services, or soon will, and they may have experience in working with hardware suppliers and any operations tools they don't provide themselves. If the web-scale providers don't offer support for hosting the 5G radio network portion of 5G, look into the Open RAN Alliance (O-RAN) and the vendors that support it. A web-scale company may be happy to work with an alliance member for the radio-network piece.

Equipment and cells. Enterprises that want to start with equipment and software of their own can first go to the network equipment providers with whom they already have relationships. Some vendors, like Cisco, have specific enterprise 5G capabilities and will provide integration partners that can assist with building a private 5G network. Enterprises need to hire people with 5G infrastructure experience if they're doing it themselves or obtain integration services from an experienced source. It's best to use the company's known vendors to get recommended sources. As with the public-cloud-hosting option, companies can look at the O-RAN supporters for the radio-network piece.

Interconnect facilities. Interconnect facilities are built onto 5G infrastructure. These facilities can be a part of the 5G service, obtained for the enterprise's infrastructure, negotiated with an operator, or something that looks like a large IP private branch exchange that has a voice network link. The most important additional requirement for private 5G networks is to have enough call policy controls to keep the private 5G network secure. Companies that don't need comprehensive security probably won't decide to build their own 5G networks in the first place.

Selecting 5G applications

Optimally, any application used in a 5G network should be network- and service-independent. While that's true at one level, dependencies between applications and 5G devices do exist. In some cases, the workflows created by new applications enabled by 5G may affect the hosting of those applications, whether in the cloud or in the data center. The good news is these application relationships aren't any different from those with which CIOs and development teams deal regularly.

The bottom line when assembling enterprise 5G networks

Whichever path an organization takes to becoming a 5G enterprise, the roles others play in support and their relationships to the company and to each other are critical. Any networking task has an element of integration, and even those who contract for it need to understand the pieces and players to make the right choices. All of these roles and relationships are important, but the most important is the one the enterprise has to fulfill as the buyer that evaluates the 5G business case and implements the applications that will meet the ROI requirements of the CFO.

Next Steps

Enterprise 5G deployment options and how to procure them

This was last published in September 2020

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