The addition of 5G to the private network mix is opening plenty of opportunities to meet the needs of a growing list of industrial and enterprise players across various locations, but how does the process of installing these systems actually work?

Experts from Nokia, Ericsson and Vodafone Group told Mobile World Live (MWL) the process has to begin with what the customer wants, with discussions on how and where they plan to use the network coming before work on the actual design or deployment can begin.

During our interviews, some common themes emerged around customisation based on those use case discussions, along with how spectrum requirements and devices are a factor in each deployment.

Business need
Thomas Hainzel, head of Digital Industries Evolution and Partnerships at Nokia, and Sebastian Elmgren, head of Business Development for Dedicated Networks with Ericsson, separately told MWL defining the use case is essential.

Hainzel explained the industry itself plays a part in the network Nokia will eventually design, noting there is even discussion of whether 5G is the right technology, because hype around it could steer people to a set-up which is “simply not fitting”.

Nokia is winning business from companies in manufacturing, maritime and aviation, among other industries, each of which presents a different set of requirements in terms of what the private network needs to achieve.

The executive noted the design of the network will also be affected by the location: for obvious reasons infrastructure for a mine might vary from one for a shipping port, with such elements considered once Nokia shifts into the design phase.

These early-stage discussions tend not to focus too much on a specific technology, Hainzel said, noting this part in the deployment is “a full business driven discussion”.

It is only in the later phases the focus will begin to shift towards a specific set-up.

The use case also influences the spectrum required, which Elmgren noted is as important an element in the design phase as the equipment itself.

Accessing spectrum is a complex matter, with countries not aligned around a single approach to allocation. Elmgren noted the scenario is relatively easy to manage where a customer’s use case covers only one market, but requires “a bit more of a plan” if multiple facilities across several countries are involved.

Elmgren explained some nations offer so-called industrial spectrum which companies can access directly and some require collaboration with mobile operators. Where vendors like Ericsson can help is in providing guidance around which spectrum is needed and how to go about getting it.

The need for expert guidance is an opportunity operators are also keen to tap. Jennifer Didoni, head of Cloud, Edge and MPNs at Vodafone Business, echoed Elmgren’s explanation of the complexity of a multi-market private network deployment, telling MWL most industrial players don’t want to get bogged down in “trying to interpret legislation and spectrum availability” on a country-by-country basis.

Offering to handle the spectrum complexity is “one of the things that Vodafone has been really keen to solve on behalf of the customer”, whether this involves dedicated access or providing a slice of the operator’s own stocks.

The use case discussion will also cover the devices a company intends to connect, a factor Didoni said will influence the business case for spectrum decisions.

An operator like Vodafone will help ensure devices selected by a company perform consistently and securely across sites covered by the private 5G network deployment. As a result, companies “don’t have to make compromises” based on what “spectrum is available and what location” they operate in. The service provider, essentially, takes the complexity out the equation.

However, device availability could also mean a company does not actually need a 5G network: Didoni noted if only 4G terminals are being used, it would obviously make no sense to use the latest technology as there would be no way to access the richer features it offers.

“It doesn’t matter that the new technology has all those bells and whistles, so that’s one of the reasons why it’s really important to understand from the customer what use case it is that they’re trying to bring to life”.

Hainzel noted the devices involved vary by deployment. In a factory, these could be sensors or worker terminals, a hospital may need health monitors and a shopping centre could require connectivity for facilities management equipment.

When designing the private network, therefore, “we are splitting…the mission critical from the not critical communication” of a consumer infrastructure.

Ups and downs
Didoni noted devices are also a factor in ascertaining requirements around bandwidth and latency.

She explained use cases involving video or visual inspections will inevitably “generate a lot of traffic uplink”, another element differentiating private from public networks where greater demand lies in downlink.

In such scenarios, Vodafone will “assign them to a network site where they get lots of uplink for those particular” use cases and devices. A different radio parameter can be set for devices where power consumption is a factor “so that they’re not consuming a lot of battery to connect and send messages over the network”.

And resiliency is a factor. Didoni explained some Vodafone clients are “super concerned” over the need for their private network to keep working “even if the public network is down”.

Hainzel explained latency comes into play for services including remote control of equipment, but even here the use case will dictate the precise network elements required.

“If you compare a mine, which is underground, you have a different antenna structure than if you go to a port or…a factory which is indoors, three completely different scenarios”.

The variety of situations means the private network architecture must be tailored to “the specific industry” and use cases, Hainzel said, a common view among the experts spoken to.

Elmgren explained some companies go from legacy Wi-Fi based networks with relatively little functionality to a private 5G set-up with rich data capabilities more akin to what staff are used to from public networks. “It just explodes the number of applications that they can do and it’s having things we take for granted”, like sending pictures back to an office.

The executive emphasised such shifts make education and training as important an element in exploiting the potential of private 5G as technology and equipment are.

The important elements include explaining how to use the technology “in the best possible way” and following up with companies after deployments.

Elmgren said some customers require a certain level of in-house access to elements including network operation, adding new devices or creating sub-networks.

Hainzel believes the potential of 5G itself is another area where education is important. Both Nokia and Ericsson executives pointed to benefits when compared to private networks based on Wi-Fi, including lower costs due to a need for less equipment on-site, faster deployment, and capacity and latency improvements outlined above.

But Hainzel argued there is still a need to explain how to use 5G in the “best possible way” and to be realistic about its capabilities because it is still early days in the technology’s lifecycle.

Future 3GPP releases will add features, continue to improve latency and bolster security.

“It’s not done yet”, Hainzel said, noting “5G has a lot of potential” despite the mobile industry’s constant quest for advancement, as evidenced by current discussion around 6G.

Vodafone, meanwhile, takes something of a hybrid approach, having its own software and engineering development teams along with an R&D site in Spain. This is all part of a commitment Didoni said it “made a few years back to bring a lot more software engineering capability in-house”.

The operator can provide a fully or jointly managed service and Didoni argued operating multiple networks across various countries is essentially Vodafone’s bread and butter, given its understanding of “the different vendor stacks” and spectrum.

Upgrades or new build
So, what happens once you decide your use case, devices to be used, tackle a varying spectrum landscape and commit to either work directly with vendors or bring an operator into the mix?

Even here, the actual deployment could vary depending on whether the job is a greenfield or a brownfield rollout.

Ericsson and Nokia noted there are pros and cons to each.

Elmgren noted a key benefit on a new build is the ability to “plan from the beginning”, adding the business case “is often easier because” capex is typically around 15 per cent less than “a professional Wi-Fi network”.

The brownfield business case is trickier, he said, because the sell cannot just be about cost due to there already being a working Wi-Fi network. Elmgren explained in this scenario, the focus shifts to the operational improvements private 5G.

Hainzel noted a greenfield deployment seems easier on paper: “you can consider all the topics from the very beginning”, planning the “infrastructure, the optical network, the backbone”, all of which can be placed in the ideal location.

“On the other hand, when you start with the new building, you sometimes don’t know what interferences will come” from the placement of other equipment including shelving or machinery.

In brownfield, Hainzel noted challenges around legacy equipment including copper wiring which may not be up to the task of handling a private 5G network, “so we need to maybe get new infrastructure in place”.

It may seem overly simplistic, but once all of the above elements are in place or have at least been discussed, the actual provision of the network is relatively straightforward, albeit in the context of something which is clearly quite complex.

Elmgren described Ericsson’s approach as almost Lego-like, meaning there are building blocks based on whether the customer wants a small, medium or large core network, which leads to a decision on the capacity of the router, the frequencies involved and what needs to be covered.

“The building blocks are very standardised but they can be customised using these modules” to fit the use case.

Nokia’s approach involves a trio of antenna size options, but Hainzel emphasised the network planning remained key because, no matter the options, it still needs to know “what to deploy and what to put where in order to get the coverage right”.

The vendor tailors the core network to the size of antenna to ensure it covers all required use cases and business applications. There is also some “fine tuning” once the network is in place to iron out any areas where coverage is lacking or weak.

Didoni said Vodafone takes a similar approach in terms of having a “fairly standardised prepacked” set-up it can deploy “relatively quickly”.

It expands on this to enable its customers to “experiment and just understand” how private 5G works, perhaps running “one use case on it” and building from there.

“We can make sure that we’re setting up the private 4G or 5G service so that they get the best out of the investment that they’ve made”.

Didoni explained there “is a glide path to go from 4G to 5G which is important for customers” by offering assurances they are “not investing in a legacy technology but they are able to upgrade as and when they need it”.

The customised approach Nokia, Ericsson and Vodafone describe make it hard to assign a typical cost for deploying private 5G, though each expert noted it is less than using Wi-Fi. The same can be said about what would constitute a normal timeline from design to deployment, however Heinzel estimated a process of up to a year.

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