The Future Enterprise Networks event in London initially focused on the nascent private networks market and the challenges it faces to achieve mass adoption.

Pablo Tomasi of analyst firm Omdia opened the day by saying “everyone needs to answer the wifi question” in the context of 5G private networks (5GPN). In other words, why bother with 5GPN when you can already achieve your local connectivity needs via wifi? That set the tone for an examination of a market that is still at an early stage of its development, despite having been an industry buzzword for some time. “The story starts now,” said Tomasi.

We then heard from Christoph Bejina of Alcatel Submarine Networks (owned by Nokia and the world’s biggest submarine cable company), who described a major 5GPN his company has had in place at its Calais campus. It has its own core network located on-site and 60 cells that connect to it. A major reason why 5GPN was chosen over wifi is the greater security offered, which was consistently flagged as a point in its favour over the course of the day. One challenge, however, is the relative infancy of the associated IoT device ecosystem.

The next speaker was Elizabeth Rumsey, who heads up private networks for Vodafone Business, which has 60 commercial PN deployments across the world, spanning manufacturing, utilities, education and the public sector. As implied, the 5GPN market is mainly an large organisation thing at this stage and Rumsey explored how we might go about getting SMEs on board. Price is unsurprisingly key and it was suggested that the mini 5G network shown off by Vodafone earlier this year may represent one way forward.

The morning concluded with a panel discussion (pictured) that explored how to do 5GPNs right. The panellists confirmed that there is still considerable hesitance around taking the plunge and that many initial deployments have been incentivised by subsidies or discounts. We asked what the single biggest objection is and there was broad consensus that education, while improving, remains a major one, along with the chicken-and-egg matter of building the broader ecosystem.

After a spot of lunch, we heard from Henning Huuse of Telia, who told us about his company’s work with the Norwegian military. It seems they provide something called ‘tactical 5G’, which involves providing secure connectivity to military personnel in the field. Using commercial rather than proprietary tech has all sorts of benefits around availability and interoperability and Telia provides portable base stations complete with their own core network and terrestrial or satellite backhaul.

He was followed by David Happy from Telint who spoke about the often-overlooked rural edge network. Telint is involved in the 5G RuralDorset project and Happy collaborated with Qualcomm to highlight some rural mmWave use cases earlier this year. His focus was on the ‘agritech revolution’, which is enabled by a functional rural edge and enables things like pinpoint week killing without the need to blanket cover fields with expensive and ecologically unfriendly chemicals.

Overall the various presentations and discussions at this event left us with a similar feeling as did MWC this year, of a telecoms industry desperate for novel use cases. Private networks were frequently mentioned at MWC as one of the most significant routes to monetisation for 5G, but several years in, we learned today that they still have a long way to go. They may well get there eventually but, as with all other potential forms of 5G monetisation, a lot of patient nurturing will be required.

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