By now, you’ve probably read plenty of stories about enterprises adopting private 5G networks that you feel like a student who found out they’re not one of the cool kids. Can you even hold your head up in a tech conference and admit that you’re not using private 5G yet?
Well, you may need not worry. The best wireless technology or an enterprise depends on four factors: devices, spread, privacy, and mission.
Although 5G is almost solely utilized by telcos, you can buy equipment to build your own 5G network and even receive hosted 5G from cloud providers like Amazon. You can use open spectrum instead of bidding for a license at an auction. There’s a lot of buzz about private 5G, so it’s easy to forget private 4G/LTE could have been adopted years ago, and that Wi-Fi is still the most popular wireless technology. To decide whether you just want to read about private 5G or adopt it yourself, you must consider the four abovementioned considerations.
Let’s start with devices, and the most basic question to ask is: Will I use my wireless to connect my cellphones, tablets, or mobile IoT devices when I’m on the go? If the answer is, “No,” you’re almost certainly not going to benefit from private 5G. All private wireless technologies will use small cells to establish networks, and the key advantage of 5G or 4G/LTE is that they can keep a call connected as you roam between these cells, exactly like the public network. That functionality is, however, irrelevant if the devices you plan to utilize don’t move around a lot.
So, if you plan on using mobile devices, you’ll need private 5G, right? Not so fast. First and foremost, 4G/LTE technology is also available in private form, and anyone considering private 5G should take a hard look at the “older” wireless technology. Faster downloads will be possible with 5G, but whether this matters depends on whether you’re downloading something substantial. 5G may make a difference for workers who use laptops, download files, and move around in their professions. Otherwise, if download speed isn’t an issue, go with the cheapest option.
However, keep in mind that 5G may make a difference. This leads us to the second of our points to consider: spread. Expecting moving devices is important, but so is knowing how spread out their movement could be. Consider the extremes; do you have a building you’re trying to connect wirelessly or do you want connectivity across a country or continent. Private 5G or even 4G/LTE is overkill if all you want to do is enable mobile sessions within a building. There are a variety of Wi-Fi calling apps that will function for voice or video calls, and Wi-Fi roaming is a well-established, standardized approach, though you should test your equipment first to make sure it works for you. Wi-Fi 6 supports OpenRoaming, allowing you to roam between Wi-Fi 6 and 5G networks.
At the other end of our spread extremes, this is critical. Apart from perhaps a government body, it’s unlikely for anyone to build a national or multinational private Wi-Fi network. The more spread out your intended wireless coverage area is, the more likely it is that you’ll need to rely on a public network for some or most of it. That doesn’t imply you should stop using Wi-Fi in your facilities – just upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 and OpenRoaming.
You might think that public 5G and Wi-Fi 6 OpenRoaming solve all your private wireless problems, but that’s not the case. One area where you may still find private 5G useful is in between those two extremes. Consider, for example, a large college campus, or a big transportation yard, or even a highly automated large farm. As Wi-Fi 6 has a much shorter range than private 5G, providing uniform Wi-Fi coverage over large areas may be difficult or impossible. You do have to be cautious with private 5G if your facility is located in a population center, because shared spectrum can cause collisions and reliability issues, and 5G’s increased range increases that risk, but vertical businesses like these present the most feasible possibility for private 5G.
Protect sensitive communications
So why not simply stick with public 5G? This brings up the issue of privacy. Some enterprises have to support communications that are totally protected and do not want to be on an open network. Private 5G may seem appear to be a viable solution for this, but keep in mind the scope issue. If you need to protect voice calls, it may be smarter to use an encrypted calling app on public Wi-Fi. Data connections can typically be encrypted at the application level, which should provide sufficient protection for downloads, VPN access, and the like.
Of course, privacy isn’t all about security. It also assures you aren’t competing with others for resources. Blocked calls and capacity limits may still occur with public 5G. However, this is most likely to happen in population centers, which are the very places where private 5G is likely to encounter spectrum competition. One alternative is network slicing, a service that lets an enterprise develop a kind of VPN out of 5G resources. Slicing isn’t widely available at the moment, but it is a growing trend and may cover your areas of interest once available.
Is 5G the best way for you to support new tasks?
Speaking of interest, it’s time to move on to the fourth and final of our considerations – mission. It’s never a good idea to lose sight of what your main goal, but it’s especially problematic when it comes to networking. Ask yourself this simple question: “Am I trying to do anything different than what I’m doing now?” If not, whatever wireless technology you have now is probably working, and you should have a compelling reason to make any sort of change. Even if you plan to accomplish something different in the future, you still need to consider why you believe your current technology won’t support that new mission. Any decision to radically change technologies – and, to be sure, private 5G is a radical change – must start by justifying why the change is necessary. Be sure you can do that before giving in to eager vendors who want to sell you private 5G, so you don’t regret your decision.