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As high-speed 5G services become more broadly available, enterprises are taking a hard look at using them to replace Wi-Fi for interior networking.
In Nemertes Research's 2020-21 Next-Generation Networking Research Study, 24% of organizations said they were already using 5G to connect office IT gear -- such as laptops, desktops, etc. -- in at least one location.
Yet, deciding to replace Wi-Fi with 5G is only the first of two major interior networking decisions enterprises have to make. The second is this: Private 5G vs. carrier 5G? In other words, should you deploy and manage the 5G infrastructure yourself or use carrier services?
As is the case with most decisions about managing something internally versus outsourcing to a third party, the major differences revolve around responsibility and control.
DIY private 5G
First and foremost, private 5G keeps the responsibility of deploying and maintaining the infrastructure under the control of enterprise IT -- just as it is with Wi-Fi. This means enterprises must have appropriately skilled staff on hand at, or in reach of, all locations.
Second, private 5G gives enterprises complete control over where and how to provide coverage and services. Service can be established even in places where 5G is not available and may not be for quite some time. In addition, service can be made available even inside structures where carrier signals do not penetrate well.
Pros and cons of managing 5G internally
Having oversight of the infrastructure provides other benefits as well. For one thing, enterprises won't have to compete with consumers or other businesses for network capacity, a worrisome prospect that won't be fully remedied until carriers roll out network slicing comprehensively. Internal management also means enterprises can roll out the flavors of 5G they want -- among them high-speed, ultra-low latency or highly reliable -- without having to wait for carriers to introduce them. Keep in mind that each carrier has its own 5G strategy, and the availability of specific services varies widely by location.
That said, private 5G has its own set of challenges. Getting access to bandwidth on sanctioned 5G spectrum can be an issue. Enterprises may have to work with a carrier to get permission to use spectrum in a given location, or they may have to obtain a government license themselves. Some countries will sell spectrum licenses to businesses and show preference for some types of business. The U.S., for example, auctioned off licenses to Citizens Broadband Radio Service spectrum for 4G or 5G use to manufacturers, retailers and even universities. Obtaining access to unlicensed spectrum is a newer option, but usage limits must be properly considered -- for example, not using too much power on broadcast, not stepping on the toes of incumbent users and dealing with the fact that incumbent users might step on your toes.
Buy carrier 5G, don't build?
Using carrier services takes deployment and maintenance challenges off enterprises' plates. Connectivity can reach staff and office devices as soon as the region has service, without IT having to do anything. Also, that connectivity is available throughout the carrier's 5G regions, making office moves simple within that footprint -- no infrastructure is needed, just the devices themselves.
Yet, drawbacks also exist with carrier 5G. Enterprises will have little control over getting the carrier to add service regions or to expand existing ones. Buildings in a 5G region may have terrible 5G reception due to local geography. Within buildings, rooms may have bad reception due to location or construction, such as an underground room or old plaster-over-metal walls. Some carriers may be willing to bring microcells in to extend signal strength inside a building, but others may not.
Finally, different carriers tend to have different chunks of 5G spectrum and, therefore, focus on different varieties of 5G, such as ultra-fast, long-reach or low latency options. The type of 5G service the carrier is best suited for may not correspond to your specific needs. Industrial IoT (IIoT) applications may need ultra-reliable and ultra-low latency 5G, and those services may not necessarily be the ones your carrier offers or specializes in.
How to choose between private 5G vs. carrier 5G
No category of use cases is better suited to private 5G vs. public 5G; that is, one can't say IIoT should always be private 5G or fleet management should always be carrier-based. Everything depends on the specific communications characteristics required and whether the carriers in question can meet those demands -- as well as how many locations are involved and where they are.
The more generic the connectivity needed and the less challenging the locations being served, the more likely it is that carrier 5G services will fit the bill -- for example, supporting office connectivity for a professional services company with offices in major metropolitan areas. Conversely, the more demanding and specific the use case or the more isolated or geographically diverse the locations, the more likely it is that a private 5G deployment will serve better.