Yes, it was just two weeks ago that I wrote about factories not yet deploying 5G networks. And that’s still true. But in the meantime, as companies investigate 5G, they are also assessing the validity of private networks — networks that don’t share traffic with the traditional cellular networks in the area.
Such private networks would only be used by their machines and/or their employees’ devices, and the companies themselves would set the rules. These efforts will accelerate in the next three years as those building chips for the 5G standard incorporate new features from the latest releases of the standard.
All of this is going to lead to some new and very interesting partnerships between telcos and traditional IT vendors and systems integrators. For example, Qualcomm has signed a deal with Capgemini to build out a pre-tested private network option for enterprise customers, and conglomerate ArcelorMittal has inked a deal with Ericsson to build out private 5G networks for its factories.
Because 5G is so complex, building and managing 5G networks will require software and automation that’s deeply integrated, and a lot of it. Telecommunications providers have been moving closer to a more IT-like infrastructure for almost a decade, and with 5G the infrastructure requires that level of deep integration, while the use cases associated with 5G reward it.
It’s why last week AT&T signed a deal with Microsoft Azure to move its telco service to Microsoft’s Operations cloud — which isn’t just a simple deal, but a radical restructuring of AT&T’s core network operations. It’s also why Google has signed a deal to integrate with Ericsson’s 5G networking gear and software.
So what does all this have to do with private networks? Essentially, these new partnerships serve to blur the line between IT and telco services and ultimately make it easier to build a dedicated network infrastructure for a company’s operations. It’s actually an inverse of what happened with cloud computing, where a shared horizontal cloud computing platform replaced individual data centers.
To be clear, the shared horizontal cellular networks are still in use, but companies are also building private networks for their own specific workloads and dedicated use. This is appealing to plant operators and companies or organizations that run large campuses alike, because with a private network they can set parameters around latency, security, and access that meet their individual needs.
And thanks to the melding of computing and telecommunications, plus the rise in new ways to share or split spectrum, private networks are economically viable. A few companies, such as John Deere and Chevron, have purchased spectrum to build and manage their own factory networks, but others are turning to carriers or traditional operators to offer dedicated networks as a managed service.
For example, Schneider Electric signed a deal with Orange and Nokia to create dedicated network slices in its factories. This is not exactly a private network; it doesn’t involve a physical separation between networks, only a software-based separation. But thanks to the ability to segment out traffic and ensure quality of service, it functions as a private network. I think the distinctions between the two will blur in the coming years, especially because later iterations of 5G will allow for more flexibility when it comes to building private networks and network slicing.
But there is still a lot left to do before private networks can become a viable reality for businesses. The IT-telco partnerships are a good first step, but the GSMA, the organization that governs cellular standards, also just issued a report on private networks that highlighted the challenges around security.
Putting more and more devices on networks, especially IoT devices with embedded software and constrained resources, means a larger surface for hackers to attack. The fact that many private or sliced networks rely on network virtualization and software opens up even more vulnerabilities. And finally, because security has to be implemented not just in hardware and software, but in business processes, it means enterprises have to get involved, too. According to the GSMA report, however, many of them don’t want to take on that responsibility.
Basically, the capabilities of 5G and the IoT are going to change the entire environment around how businesses operate. But since it’s early days, we’re still focusing on infrastructure and what the tech enables.
As businesses deploy these networks and this gear, they need to start thinking about what their businesses need to become if they want to keep them secure and truly take advantage of the capabilities offered by the technology.