IoT Blog
IoT Blog

Should You Build a Private 5G or LTE Network?

by Warren Westrup, Director, Business Development, Utilities

For years, if an organization wanted to deploy a private wireless network at a factory, office building, transit hub, other facility, or over a utility service or other geographic area, its options were limited to Wi-Fi or proprietary network technologies like LoRa or Sigfox. 

These legacy private networks were adequate for connecting laptops to the Internet and for other limited Industrial IoT (IIoT) use cases. However, the coverage and security limitations of these networks, their incompatibility with public cellular networks, as well as their high ongoing management costs, made it difficult for organizations to use these networks for many IIoT applications.

Recently, a new type of private network – private cellular networks that use 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) and 5G technologies – have begun to be deployed by many companies. Because these networks use cellular technologies, and are compatible with public cellular networks, they offer organizations many of the coverage, security, and other capabilities they need for more advanced IIoT applications. In addition, the long-term management costs for these networks are often lower than other wireless technologies.

However, organizations face many questions as they consider whether they should deploy a private LTE or 5G network, including how these private networks work and what are specific advantages they offer over Wi-Fi and other private networks. 

This blog will help answer these questions, along with providing information on additional resources organizations can use to learn if a private LTE or 5G network makes sense for their organization. 

What are private 5G and LTE networks?

Private LTE and 5G networks (referred to as “non-public networks” by 3GPP, the mobile telecommunications standards organization) are networks that use licensed, shared, or unlicensed wireless spectrum and LTE or 5G cellular networking base stations, small cells, and other Radio Access Network (RAN) infrastructure to transmit voice and data to edge devices, including smart phones, embedded modules, routers, and gateways. 

LTE is a 4G cellular networking technology that offers secure, reliable, and fast connectivity. It is the same technology that you use today when you use your smart phone to call friends and family, check your email, play games, or watch videos. 

5G is a new cellular network technology. 5G offers many performance advantages over LTE, including faster data transmission, lower latency, and the ability to connect to more edge devices. To learn more about 5G, and how some of the performance advantages it offers will be evolutionary while others will be revolutionary, read our previous blog, A Closer Look at the Five Waves of 5G.

How do private LTE and private 5G networks work?

Technically, private LTE and 5G networks work the same as public LTE and 5G networks operated by Verizon, AT&T, Vodafone, and other Mobile Network Operators (MNOs). Edge devices use wireless spectrum to transmit data to nearby cellular base stations, access points and other network infrastructure. The infrastructure then carries this data to the enterprise’s internal network over a secured wired connection. Using this secured connection, data from the edge devices can be sent to various cloud services and applications. To transmit data back to the edge devices, the same process happens in reverse.

The difference between public and private LTE and 5G networks resides in who has a license or priority access to the wireless spectrum, and who owns and operates the network’s base stations and infrastructure. 

With public LTE and 5G networks, the MNO owns and operates the spectrum and the network infrastructure. In addition, generally all of the MNO’s customers (outside of first responders or similar public safety organizations) have the same access rights to the network.

With private LTE and 5G networks, private organizations own, operate, or have some level of priority access to the network’s infrastructure or spectrum. The amount of network infrastructure and spectrum owned and operated can vary greatly. 

With Full Private LTE and 5G networks (which we will focus on in this blog) the organization owns the wireless spectrum it uses for the network, as well as the network base stations and other infrastructure. This provides it with full control over the network and allows it to completely isolate its users from other MNO public networks. 

However, there are other types of private networks. With Private Shared and Hybrid Private LTE and 5G networks, parts of the network are either owned, shared, or operated by the MNO or another organization.

Who can build a private LTE network or private 5G network?

Pretty much any organization can set up and operate their own private LTE or 5G network if they want to, just as anyone can set up and operate their own Wi-Fi network. They just need spectrum, network infrastructure equipment, and edge devices that can connect to this equipment. 

Full Private LTE and 5G networks require a higher initial capital investment than Wi-Fi and other networks. This is why organizations that are deploying or are considering deploying private LTE or 5G networks are generally organizations that need to provide connectivity to a large number of users and devices, or need to cover a large geographic area for IIoT applications. 

This group includes:

MNOs: Many MNOs are considering deploying private networks to supplement their existing wireless services in areas where there is high demand, or they have limited licensed spectrum. For example, with private LTE networks, they can provide additional service to customers outside of the licensed LTE spectrum they already have. In addition, some MNOs set up and manage private LTE or 5G networks on behalf of organizations that want a private cellular network, but don’t want to own or operate the private cellular network infrastructure themselves.

Neutral Hosts: Similar to MNOs, neutral hosts are private LTE and 5G networks that supplement existing public wireless networks in a particular location. For example, a neutral host might set up a private cellular network in an airport, office building, stadium, or hotel. The neutral host network can provide faster and better connectivity to the travelers, office workers, sports fans, or hotel guests at the location. The facility owner will pay the neutral host network provider for improved connectivity in their facility.  MNOs may also compensate the neutral host provider for offering connectivity to their public LTE or 5G networks in facilities where the MNO’s own coverage is limited.

Private Enterprises: Practically any type of organization – manufacturing company, mining company, university, transportation agency, utility, etc. – can install and operate a private LTE or 5G network to provide connectivity to their factory, mine, campus, airport, or utility service area. To do this, the organization needs:

  • Wireless spectrum purchased from the government, or provided to them by an MNO or third party spectrum provider. They can also use unlicensed spectrum or spectrum that is “shared,” like CBRS spectrum in the U.S.
  • LTE or 5G infrastructure -- base stations, mini-towers, small cells, and other equipment -- purchased from network infrastructure equipment providers.
  • Smartphones, embedded modules, routers, gateways, and other edge devices with SIM cards and modems to connect to their private LTE or 5G network. 

Have any organizations deployed private LTE or private 5G networks yet?

Organizations around the world have deployed or are in the process of deploying private LTE and private 5G networks. 

Examples include:

Can any smartphone, embedded module, router or other type of edge device access private LTE and private 5G networks?

Though private LTE and 5G networks use the same cellular technology as MNOs for their public LTE and 5G networks, you can’t just turn on your LTE or 5G smartphone, embedded module, router, or other edge device and expect it to connect to a private cellular network. 

First, your device needs to be able to operate on the wireless spectrum utilized by the private network. Second, it will need a unique Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card that identifies it and allows it to securely communicate over the private cellular network. If the private network is operated by an MNO, or by a neutral host or other organization with an operating agreement with the MNO, the device typically can use the MNO’s SIM to connect to the network (there might be charges from the MNO). 

Organizations with Full Private LTE or 5G networks that do not connect their private LTE network to an MNO will need a unique SIM card that connects to their own private LTE network. SIM cards are inexpensive and easy to obtain from network equipment providers. 

In addition, Smart SIM cards are available that enable devices to connect to a private cellular network when they are in private network coverage, and then switch to public cellular networks when they can no longer connect to their private network.

In the United States the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) is a band of wireless spectrum that has been made available by the FCC for private LTE networks. Edge devices -- including smartphones, embedded modules, routers -- that have been certified to use the CBRS band by the FCC can connect to these private CBRS LTE networks. 

More and more edge devices are becoming available that have been certified for use with private wireless spectrum. For example, Apple’s new iPhones supports CBRS, and Sierra Wireless’s AirPrime EM7511 module along with several gateways have been certified for CBRS.

What is a private LTE CBRS network?

As mentioned above, a private LTE CBRS network is a private LTE network using CBRS wireless spectrum. Though the FCC auctioned some CBRS licenses, called Priority Access Licenses (PALs), companies can still use General Authorized Access (GAA) CBRS spectrum without obtaining  a license, sharing this spectrum with PAL license owners (who have priority access to the spectrum) and other GAA users. This allows both PAL license owners and GAA users to build and operate private LTE networks in the United States using the CBRS 3.5 GHz band of wireless spectrum.

Is CBRS is the only band of spectrum available for private LTE and private 5G networks?

No – not at all! 

In addition to private LTE CBRS networks, organizations interested in building their own private LTE networks in the U.S. have other spectrum options beyond CBRS. For example, the FCC recently approved rules that will allow a 900 MHz band of spectrum owned by Anterix to be used for private networks. 

In addition, many governments in Europe and elsewhere around the world allow companies to purchase wireless spectrum for private LTE or private 5G networks. For example, Germany has allocated spectrum in the 3.4–3.8GHz band for private 5G networks. In France, frequencies in the 2.57-2.62 GHz band have been offered to businesses for private cellular networks. 

Organizations around the world can also use unlicensed spectrum in the 5 GHz band for private LTE and 5G networks. 

What makes private LTE and private 5G networks better than private Wi-Fi networks?

As mentioned above, there are various pros and cons to consider when comparing Wi-Fi vs. private LTE and private 5G networks

Private LTE and private 5G networks typically require a higher up-front initial investment than Wi-Fi networks. They also require edge devices that have been certified for the wireless spectrum used by their private cellular network. If the private cellular network is not connected to an MNO, the edge devices also need SIM cards for access to the private network.

However, private LTE and private 5G networks offer many advantages over Wi-Fi networks. For example, these types of networks deliver better wireless coverage than Wi-Fi over large geographic areas, underground and inside buildings or other facilities. LTE and 5G networks are also more secure than Wi-Fi because they encrypt data by default. And private LTE and 5G networks are easier (and thus less expensive) to administer and maintain than Wi-Fi networks. 

In addition, because Private LTE and 5G devices use the same technology as public cellular networks, they can hand themselves off to public cellular networks if they leave their private network’s coverage area. For example, a company could still monitor and control an automated forklift after it has crossed the street and moved out of range of its private 5G network, as long as it has the capability to hand itself off to the MNO’s public 5G network. 

There are other benefits to using the same network technology as public cellular networks. Companies that are in the process of building a private LTE or 5G network can start off using a public LTE or 5G network to provide connectivity at their facility, and then switch over to their own private network after it is fully deployed. In addition, with private LTE and 5G networks, organizations can use public networks as a “backup” if their own private network goes down, as long as their devices have smart SIM cards or dual SIM cards.  

The question then comes down to the connectivity use case. If the organization wants to provide extensive coverage to a large number of edge devices over a wide, remote, or underground area, ensure the security of its data, lower its long-term network administration costs, or maintain a great deal of control over its cellular network – it should consider investing in a private LTE or 5G network.

What are some private LTE and private 5G use cases?

Organizations around the world need to deploy secure, fast, easy-to-manage networks that can deliver them reliable coverage inside buildings or in remote areas for voice or data communications. 
Because private LTE and private 5G networks meet this need, the number of use cases for these networks is growing every day.

Some examples of private LTE and private 5G network use cases include:

  • Manufacturing: Manufacturing facilities can use private LTE and 5G networks to connect their Information Technology (IT) systems to their manufacturing equipment, enabling them to deploy automated guided vehicles (AGV), remote machine and robotic control, manufacturing process monitoring, predictive maintenance, and other IIoT applications. In a recent survey by Nokia and ABI Research, 90% of manufacturing decision makers are investigating the use of either 4G and/or 5G in their operations and 84% of these decision makers are considering a deployment of their own local private 4G/5G wireless network.
  • Chemicals: Many chemical processing facilities have equipment that is used by multiple tenants or they rent out their equipment to customers for discreet projects. Private LTE and private 5G networks enable these facilities to carefully monitor how their equipment is used by their tenants or customers, allowing them to deploy an “equipment-as-a-service” business model that charges these tenants or customers based on equipment use.
  • Warehouses: With a private LTE or 5G network, online retailers and warehouse operators can deploy robotic product picking, product tracking, and other IIoT warehouse applications without worrying about dead spots in their warehouse or spending a lot on network maintenance.
  • Airports, Train Stations, Stadiums, and other Large Public Venues: Large public venues often need strong coverage both inside their facility and outdoors to support the connectivity needs of their employees, IoT devices and hundreds to thousands of visitors – private LTE and 5G networks can securely deliver it.
  • Utilities: By providing utilities with secure, flexible, reliable connectivity over a wide geographic area, private LTE and 5G networks enable utilities to more easily and affordably connect their IoT applications to smart meters, transformers, battery-based energy storage systems, and other types of grid infrastructure, as well as to vehicles used by their mobile workforce.
  • Mining, Oil, and Gas: Private LTE and 5G networks provide mining and energy extraction companies with reliable connectivity they require for IIoT applications that connect to drilling machines, rugged handhelds, and other equipment – even if this equipment is underground or in a remote location.
  • Campuses: Universities, hospitals, military bases, hotels, offices, apartment buildings and other campuses, venues, and facilities where a large number of people or IoT devices need fast, reliable, and secure Internet connectivity can benefit from a private LTE or private 5G network.

Can organizations upgrade their private LTE networks to 5G?

Yes. 5G’s support for sub-6 Gigahertz (GHz) spectrum means that companies can easily transform their private LTE network into a private 5G network, using the same spectrum they are currently using for their private LTE network, while benefiting from many of the speed, latency, and other performance improvements offered by 5G. 

Private 5G networks that use this sub-6 spectrum can address most IIoT use cases that organizations are considering for private cellular networks today. However, many governments around the world are also planning on making 5G millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum between 24 GHz and 53 GHz available for private networks in the future. This higher GHz spectrum will enable private 5G mmWave networks to provide much higher data transmission rates than LTE and 5G sub-6 GHz networks. In addition, 5G’s use of mmWave spectrum, in combination with other technological advancements, including a new core network called 5G Core Network (5GCN), will deliver new connectivity capabilities, including ultra-high reliability, very low latency, and very fast handoffs.

The advantages offered by both sub-6 and mmWave 5G networks are why in a recent article, a researcher from Deloitte wrote “For many of the world’s largest businesses, private 5G will likely become the preferred choice, especially for industrial environments such as manufacturing plants, logistics centers, and ports.”

Where can I learn more about private LTE and private 5G networks?

The following industry organizations, research firm reports, media articles and other content can help you learn more about private LTE and private 5G networks and whether such a private cellular network might make sense for your organization.  

In addition, the following Sierra Wireless white papers, ebooks, articles and blogs can also provide you with more background on CBRS and other types of private LTE networks:

You can also Start with Sierra by contacting us directly to talk about how we can help you use private LTE and 5G networks to create value in today’s connected economy.