This article is about the state of the LTE/5G private network market, world-wide.
From a regulation standpoint, there are two types of private networks:
- true private network – Installed and operated independently by the owner. This requires the owner to have legal access to spectrum, and there are several ways that can happen.
- pseudo-private network – Installed and operated by an incumbent MNO, but providing special service to a particular customer. This can be done through network slicing, or through an arrangement technically equivalent to an MVNO.
These terms “true” and “pseudo” are not official terms, but used for clarity in this article.
Pseudo-private networks are not really private networks. They are extensions of an incumbent MNO public network that provide special service for a specific customer. Given this definition, even the old household femtocell was a “private network” because it could be programmed to provide service to only a limited set of phones. As a more serious example, here is an article from Light Reading about Vodafone installing a 5G network in a Ford factory. These arrangements are called “private networks” in MNO marketing literature, which creates a lot of confusion. Because these pseudo-private networks are not of much interest to us or our customers, we move on.
True Private Networks
This report summarizes Nokia’s progress in true private LTE networks as of November 2019. Here is a summary of the summary:
- 120 total projects
- by region:
- 37% Europe
- 27% North America
- 20% APAC
- 10% LATAM
- 8% MEA
- by industry:
- 29% Energy
- 27% Public Sector
- 20% Transportation
- 9% Manufacturing
- 15% Other, including agriculture
Spectrum Access Types
The key to having a true private network is getting access to spectrum. This is a regulatory/legal question, not a technical question. So far, there are these approaches:
- Unlicensed shared access. Users are not required to have a license, but must coordinate operation to minimize interference.
- Licensed shared access (LSA). Multiple users are licensed to used the same spectrum in the same area, but coordinate their operation.
- Dedicated licensed spectrum. The operator has a license directly from the regulator.
- Leased spectrum. The operator leases the spectrum from an incumbent MNO.
- Multefire. This is an LTE-like technology that operates in unlicensed spectrum. We mention this technology only for completeness, but since it is not true LTE/5G, it is not covered in here.
Incumbent MNOs do not like true private networks. Note this quote from the previously referenced Light Reading article:
“However, operators have also attacked plans by regulators in countries such as Germany to award 5G spectrum directly to industry groups so they can build private networks themselves.”
Here is a full whitepaper by Vodafone explaining how pseudo-private networks are wonderful and true private networks are a terrible idea.
Spectrum regulations for private LTE/5G networks vary around the world, but the most active areas are the US and EU.
The US has a new class of operation called “CBRS” that supports both licensed and unlicensed shared spectrum use, with licensed users getting priority. CBRS uses band 48 (3.5 GHz). The CBRS basestation is limited to 10 MHz bandwidth and power of 53 dBm (200 W) EIRP and 43 dBm (20 W) actual. It is like a normal LTE or 5G basestation, but includes a CBRS “SAS client” (Spectrum as a Service) component that coordinates with an approved SAS provider. There are currently three SAS providers: Google, Commscope, and Federated Wireless.
The US has also opened 900 MHz spectrum for private LTE networks. This spectrum had previously been used for private LMR (land mobile radio) networks, mostly by utility companies and large industrial facilities.
The UK allows unlicensed operation in the 1800 MHz guard band, but EIRP is limited to 20 dBm (100 mW). So far, nobody is using this spectrum on any significant scale.
More interesting, the UK now allows spectrum leasing, which would allow for true private networks in areas that have no coverage. Note, though, that the example given in the linked article is not a private network, but a small public MNO.
OFCOM made provisions in its 2.3-2.4 GHz licensing for possible LSA use, to keep harmonized with an expected LSA plan in the EU. However, Brexit makes LSA in the UK unlikely now.
In the EU, regulators in different counties are taking different approaches up to this point, with a trend toward LSA:
- Italy is doing field trials with LSA.
- Germany is trying direct licensing.
- France is considering LSA.
- Finland is doing field trials with LSA.
- This 2020 CEPT document makes reference to LSA trials in:
At the European (international) level, there is a move toward standardizing LSA in the 2.3-2.4 GHz range:
- ETSI has a specification for LSA.
- CEPT has released guidelines for LSA regulatory coordination across Europe.
- Pre-Brexit, UK regulators were making preparations for LSA in 2.3-2.4 GHz so they would be consistent with an expected LSA plan in the EU.
So it looks like the EU will get a CBRS-like service based on LSA in the 2.3-2.4 GHz range (band 40). And some countries, notably Germany, are offering direct licensing for industrial users.
Russia is doing field trials with LSA.
- According to Light Reading, China’s regulators were originally against true private networks, but now they are under consideration.
- There are already 4G and 5G dedicated-spectrum private networks in Japan:
- This article, about private networks in LATAM, lists two true private networks in Brazil, for a utility and for a tractor factory. (It also lists one in Peru that appears to be a pseudo private network.)
- Another private network in Brazil, at a mine.
There is little public information about private networks in Africa, but Nokia, Globalstar, and Hitachi seem to think there will be a market there.
Growing opportunities for spectrum access are making private cellular networks a reality in many parts of the world. The fastest regulatory developments are in the US, with Europe close behind.
But why are they installing these networks? Is a private network right for your facility? That is a topic for another article.