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The advent of private LTE and 5G networks opens enormous potential for IoT innovation across a range of industries and use cases. It is easy to get excited about the opportunities it unlocks for reliable, high performance, secure connectivity, and to assume that the advantages offered will more than justify the cost of implementation.
Certainly, the received wisdom in telecommunications tends to be that higher bandwidth and lower latency is always better but, in this case, it is worth exploring the issue with an open mind to determine whether your organisation has a genuinely compelling business case for deployment.
The advantages of cellular connectivity and private networks
Cellular connectivity is an excellent solution for IoT deployments where wired connectivity simply isn’t possible – where mobility is central to the use case or in challenging physical environments, for example. It also overcomes the inherent issues with using Wi-Fi as a private network, such as its lack of inherent security, limited scalability, patchy coverage, and performance issues.
Cellular connectivity delivers a powerful, reliable solution whether the requirement is for low-cost battery-powered devices occasionally sending small data packets – for example, to track asset location in a hospital setting – or high-spec devices requiring ultra-reliable, high uplink bandwidth, low latency connections, like those needed to support autonomous vehicles.
Private 5G and LTE networks use the same technology as public networks and provide connectivity to conventional network devices such as routers, gateways, mobile phones, and IoT devices, but the network is exclusive to the enterprise that deploys the infrastructure that runs it. This is ideal for remote environments where there is no public network coverage, with use cases including mines and oil rigs, or to meet urgent temporary communications requirements, such as mountain rescue efforts.
Accessing a private network requires enterprise devices to have a cellular modem capable of operating in the chosen environment and a SIM with a valid subscriber identifier for the network. This adds a further layer of security and data control to communications as only authorised devices can connect to the network. With security, data management, and privacy top of the list in recent studies on the drivers for deploying private networks, it is not surprising that industries as diverse as transport, healthcare, and defence recognise the advantages of exclusive use communication systems.
Another advantage is greater configurability beyond that offered by mobile network operators (MNOs). The enterprise can tailor its network to meet specific coverage and latency requirements and can tailor uplink and downlink bandwidth ratios to the needs of the use case. It can also add security functionality and integrate with operational and business systems.
Key use cases here include manufacturing plants and warehouses, where Industry 4.0 applications including autonomous guided vehicles, robotics, and predictive maintenance solutions are revolutionising the speed, efficiency, and accuracy of legacy production systems.
Interoperability adds flexibility
It is possible for an LTE or 5G private network to interoperate with public networks, which is a particular advantage when users, vehicles, or other IoT-connected assets need to move from one location to another while remaining trackable. Use cases include connected supply chains, where goods leave the factory and must be tracked to their destination, or devices on a campus environment, which need continuous connectivity whether they are on or off site.
However, deploying a private network that is capable of interoperability is more complex than setting up a standalone network. Devices must be able to support different Radio Access Technology (RAT) types and spectrum bands they may need to use different networks. A basic solution is to equip devices with separate SIMs, one for the private network and another for the public network. However, this has implications for device design and cost, which will affect the ROI of the solution.
More advanced solutions can solve this issue, with intelligent SIMs able to store multiple subscriber identities and seamlessly switch between different networks to ensure optimum connectivity and competitive data rates.
Challenges to consider
The various use cases described above – which are just some among many – demonstrate the breadth of opportunity for private LTE and 5G networks. However, there are several factors to be considered before companies pull out their cheque books.
In some cases, existing network coverage may be sufficient for the purposes of the desired solution. Substituting an LTE or 5G private network would require significant investment in infrastructure, which may not be justified in terms of potential ROI.
On the subject of cost, the investment in standing up a private network is not inconsiderable, and it is advisable to consult with an experienced partner to cover challenges such as:
• Procuring and installing Radio Access Network (RAN) and core network computer equipment and software.
• Configuring the network to provide the performance and security required, and to integrate with other systems such as OT and IT.
• Managing privacy, security, mobility, backup, software deployment, and updates, storage and compute resources.
• Provisioning and deprovisioning IoT devices.
• Testing devices, systems and applications and obtaining any quality accreditations or certifications required.
These are just some of the issues to consider, and it is essential that businesses go into this with their eyes open. Our own research has shown that IoT projects often fail to deliver the expected benefits and ROI that were originally anticipated. This is often down to a lack of visibility of the complexity of the undertaking, and a shortfall in expertise within the organisation.
An important first step is to determine whether the proposed use case genuinely requires a private network, or whether alternative connectivity solutions can suffice. If a use case truly needs all the features of reliability, bandwidth, low latency, and security on offer – and if not having these features will compromise it to an unacceptable level – then a private network can offer a competitive edge and help the business move to a new era.
Determining the use case is the first step, but as the challenges of deployment indicate, it is a complex undertaking, and well worth consulting a specialist in cellular connectivity who can provide expert, independent advice on the project from start to finish, to ensure the expected benefits are fully realised.