Enterprises are increasingly interested in using dedicated Mobile Private Networks (MPNs) to provide greater control and security for their on-site connectivity, particularly for IoT. It is also a high priority for mobile infrastructure vendors and communications service providers (CSPs), looking to open up new markets, particularly for 5G.
Mobile Private Network (MPN) is typically defined as a dedicated mobile network operated in a limited geographical area, e.g. a campus or large building, using cellular technologies (LTE or 5G), which is installed and operated for the benefit of a specific enterprise client (or similar). The use of dedicated private networks is nothing new. Technologies such as Wi-Fi, Zigbee, WirelessHART, and LoRaWAN are almost exclusively deployed as private networks. The recent change is that increasingly it is 4G and 5G cellular technologies that are being used.
These new 4G and 5G MPNs are being deployed to deliver both traditional voice/data services and IoT applications, including machine remote monitoring, augmented reality (AR) devices, and autonomous vehicles.
The campus MPN consists typically of multiple access points, known as an eNodeB (in LTE networks) or gNB (in 5G networks), to which the device is connected using dedicated spectrum. Those network access points are then connected to a Packet Core, which authenticates devices, manages data traffic routing, and applies policy management. In some cases, the site will also have an edge server, running applications on the local site, allowing greater responsiveness for the on-site use case. The Packet Core can then be connected to the enterprise’s servers, either dedicated or cloud-based, and/or the public internet.
In some cases, a ‘private network’ solution may be delivered using public infrastructure. In that case the device would be connected to a public eNodeB/gNB, using spectrum held by a mobile network operator. This might be delivered using a dedicated ‘slice’ of the network specifically allocated for the enterprise. That network is then typically connected to a public core, although could be managed using a separate private core that is interconnected with the public network.
Why are we seeing greater interest in the deployment of private campus networks today? There are essentially four reasons.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is increasingly seen as a competitive differentiator across numerous sectors including agriculture, mining, manufacturing, distribution and retail. Competitive pressure is forcing enterprises to look very closely at new ways to gain efficiencies, for instance through automation or digital twins and use cases are becoming more well-established and mature. Transforma Insights has noted over the last two years an increasing interest in utilising IoT for more mission-critical use cases.
In part driven by the advent of the Covid pandemic, we have also seen increasing requirements for more on-shoring (or near-shoring) of production and more resilience in supply chains. The need to adapt production and supply chains to the new normal is driving more reliance on automation in factories, distribution centres, ports and other enterprise sites.
One big enabler for mobile private network adoption, beyond the availability of 5G, is the fact that many major markets have issued licenses for, or otherwise made available, spectrum specifically for private networks. Without such available spectrum, campus networks would need to rely on shared spectrum held by mobile network operators, which is unlikely to be available for the exclusive use of the enterprise.
The most prominent of the recent licence awards is the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum in the United States. In 2020 the Federal Communications Commission opened up a frequency band from 3550MHz to 3700MHz, which had previously been held exclusively for use by the military and satellite ground stations. Mobile, cable and satellite providers won the lion’s share of licences, particularly Verizon, while enterprises focused on securing small numbers of licences in very specific areas. John Deere, for instance, won licences covering its manufacturing and operations centres in Illinois and Iowa, while Chevron’s wins were highly concentrated in the oil producing areas of West Texas, New Mexico, and the Gulf of Mexico.
In Europe, the prevailing trend is similar to that in the US, with licences in the range of 3-4GHz becoming available, such as “Lokale Netze” in Germany in the 3.7-3.8GHz band and local spectrum licences in the UK in four bands: 24.25-26.5GHz (indoor only), 3.8-4.2GHz, 2390-2400MHz (indoor only), and 2x3.3MHz duplex at 1800MHz. Other European countries including Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, the Netherlands and Sweden have either made spectrum available already or are planning to do so.
Elsewhere in the world, China has somewhat bucked the trend in advanced markets by not yet making available spectrum for MPN, although the three mobile network operators have launched services. Japan’s ministry of communications opened the application process in December 2019 and started awarding licences in 2020. Other countries that have awarded spectrum or are in the process of doing so include Australia, Brazil, Chile, Malaysia, and New Zealand.
The benefit of operating a wireless network (e.g. Wi-Fi) within a campus is self-evident, allowing for the networking of all of the various devices within the site in a secure and managed way. However, the last couple of years have seen a significant increase in interest in using cellular technologies to do this, particularly focused on 5G. While the benefits of using Mobile Private Networks are not dependent on using 5G, the new technology delivers a number of critical capabilities that can be particularly useful for enterprises.
There have been a lot of superlatives thrown around about 5G, up to and including it being the most important invention since electricity. Ignoring the hyperbole, the difference from previous mobile technology generations is three-fold:
There are specific benefits from using cellular (and particularly 5G) technologies compared with other private network technologies such as LoRaWAN, Zigbee or even Wi-Fi 6. Compared with most technologies, 5G provides far superior bandwidth, security and reliability. Compared to Wi-Fi 6 the distinction is less pronounced but 5G has some advantages including latency, reliability, security, quality of services, and more consistent deployment environment (i.e. using the same technology for campus and national/global deployments, potentially with roaming between these).
To a certain extent the creation of a contest between Wi-Fi and 5G is spurious. The most likely scenario is that the two technologies will co-exist. Very few organisations that elect to implement a private 5G network will not also provide Wi-Fi for that same site.
For more on the use of 5G for Internet of Things, check our Hot Topic page: 5G IoT.
In the report ‘The move to ‘Network New Normal’: how 5G, edge computing and network disaggregation are creating radical disruption’ (June 2020) we at Transforma Insights examined the impact of new technology developments on how telecommunications networks are run. One of the key areas was disaggregation and virtualisation. Historically the software and hardware elements of telecoms networks were very deeply integrated. However, recently, there have been initiatives to separate those elements, such as Software Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Function Virtualisation (NFV). Furthermore, one of the key principles of 5G is that the user plane and the control plane are separated.
The separation of a software control layer from a commoditised and generic set of telecoms network hardware is the epitome of Transforma Insights’ concept of ‘Separation-Innovation-Explosion’. The key idea is that separation of hardware from software/control layers is a fundamental requirement for, and stimulus of, a technology area seeing true deep-seated innovation. In most technologies that combine hardware and software, the heritage is for deep integration of the two, e.g. in automotive or industrial systems. However, when these two are separated, as we saw with personal computing decades ago, it stimulates radical innovation. Not having to build the hardware and the software together enables greater innovation in both.
When considered in the context of the operation of telecoms networks, the increasing separation of the control layer will create an explosion in the number and variety of networking services, and therefore a more diverse service providers better able to meet the needs of customers. For instance, new service providers are able to operate their own virtual packet core, delivering flexible new offerings, without needing to operate an access network. This applies equally in the MPN space as it does in wide area networks. It is perhaps unsurprising that the advent of this separation and virtualisation has been the trigger for the interest and involvement of the cloud hyperscalers, particularly AWS and Microsoft in this market.
In the long term, the specific features and functionality of 5G are likely to be less important to the development of new services than the liberation of software-oriented organisations to freely develop innovative new telecom services.
There are a number of scenarios where we can envisage enterprises wishing to make use of the associated capabilities for IoT. Manufacturing, transportation, logistics, agriculture and energy are amongst the most obvious. We have already seen early adoption in a number of places, as illustrated by these examples from the Transforma Insights Best Practice & Vendor Selection Database:
The above examples illustrate some of the key deployments of campus networks to-date. Other major use cases include agriculture (to compensate for limited coverage in remote areas), utilities for power stations, and warehouses/distribution centres.
According to Transforma Insights TAM Forecast Database, the leading sectors, in terms of connections, in 2025 will be Energy (33%), Agriculture (22%), Manufacturing (12%) and Transportation & Storage (9%).
[Source: Transforma Insights, 2022]
A broad array of vendors support the deployment of campus MPNs, including mobile network operators such as Verizon and Vodafone, infrastructure vendors such as Ericsson and Nokia, and others such as Amazon Web Services, which launched its AWS Private 5G offering in late 2021.
The concept behind the MPN is that the network is self-deployed and operated, but very few if any enterprises will actually deploy their own networks today, although this may evolve in future. Currently they will require infrastructure from a vendor, which is also almost certain to install and operate it for them. Or possibly they will buy infrastructure plus overlay services as a package from a systems integrator or specialist service provider. They might have made some minor foray into the telecoms stack, but they are essentially customers, as they would be for almost any other ICT service, albeit that in some cases they may own the spectrum.
The key vendors are:
Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia have all been positioning themselves to take advantage of this opportunity, as they are the companies at the forefront, and dominant in, manufacturing and deploying network equipment. However, they face a couple of challenges: they generally lack channels to market, and they are somewhat unwilling to directly compete with their biggest customers for enterprise connectivity services, and they don’t hold the spectrum. Typically, today they are working with Mobile Network Operators.
There is also a group of smaller vendors which generally originated from selling ‘small cell’ hardware. These include the likes of Airspan, Altiostar, Commscope and JMA Wireless. They also have offerings that are highly suited to MPNs.
The provision of in-building or campus connectivity is not a new thing, of course. Vendors such as Cambium Networks, Cisco, HPE and Juniper have been selling wireless networking equipment to enterprises for decades. While the main focus has been on Wi-Fi, inevitably in the face of the growing interest in MPNs they have also turned their attention to cellular technologies. Cisco, for instance has its Premium Mobile Broadband (PMB) offering for private LTE (4G) networks, where the cellular connectivity piece is provided by partners as an add on to its end-to-end architecture for enterprise infrastructure (i.e. including Wi-Fi, routers, network infrastructure and various other elements). The advantage of these companies is an existing enterprise customer base, but generally they will not have the most cutting edge offerings.
Mobile network operators (MNOs) are clearly going to be significant players in MPNs. While they are no longer the exclusive owners of mobile spectrum, they are the overwhelming dominant players. Dedicated spectrum for MPN has been issued in only a few countries and MNOs have often been the biggest licence winners. Furthermore, MPNs do not exist in a vacuum. Based on our discussions in the market, a large proportion of enterprise enquiries about MPNs also include some requirement for wide area connectivity beyond the campus, for instance involving wider supply chain tracking. As a result, an MNO is usually going to be involved in some way in supporting an enterprise’s requirements. Furthermore, some ‘private network’ requirements can be supported, perhaps as an intermediate step to a full private campus deployment, using public radio access network (RAN) infrastructure.
Mobile network operators might seem the most obvious CSPs to venture into MPNs, but cable and fixed line operators have also been venturing into the space, as illustrated by the winners of the CBRS licences. Most will be at a disadvantage compared to the existing MNOs for a few reasons. They will almost always have a more limited footprint, being typically single country operators, they will lack the wide area cellular connectivity which MNOs can combine with MPNs, and they will often have a limited enterprise customer base.
Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs), particularly those focused on the IoT space, have also started to build offerings for MPN that complement their provision of wide area connectivity, often globally.
The provision of MPNs will often be part of a wider offering incorporating factory automation or augmented reality or any number of applications, particularly for IoT-related MPNs. As such, a significant proportion of MPNs will be implemented as part of a systems integrator’s wider solution for its enterprise client. The likes of Accenture and T-Systems were amongst the winners of Lokale Netze licences in Germany, illustrating that they plan on integrating MPN into a wider set of offerings.
The cloud ‘hyperscalers’, most notably AWS and Microsoft, have recently developed and launched MPN and core network capabilities. Microsoft does not yet have a campus product but in 2020 acquired Affirmed Networks which provides virtual core network infrastructure, including virtual Evolved Packet Core (vEPC), mobile edge computing (MEC) and network slicing capabilities. AWS launched its AWS Private 5G offering in late 2021 and also has its AWS IoT Core and AWS IoT Core for LoRaWAN products.
There are already currently a set of companies, such as Boingo Wireless or CityMesh which provide MPNs to enterprises. There are also specialists, focused on providing ICT solutions for particular verticals that may benefit from the addition of MPNs.
The discussion of MPNs naturally focuses predominantly on campus networks, and these are certainly a critical new growth area. However, considering requirements for a single stand-alone campus network in isolation from an organisation’s wider connectivity requirements is a mistake.
In most cases, an enterprise’s requirement for connecting people, things and processes do not begin and end at the factory (or warehouse, port or hospital) gates. For this reason, we advocate considering the enterprise MPN requirements alongside any wider needs for secure, reliable and feature-rich end-to-end connectivity, covering campus networks, national networks and global managed networks.