“5G technology is the foundation to mission critical wireless communications in industry 4.0, critical infrastructure and digitized healthcare, and private mobile networks are bridging the gap in the absence of universal public 5G networks,” says Gearoid Collins, chief commercial officer at Vilicom.
The global private mobile network (PMN) market is experiencing exponential growth, driven primarily by industrial IoT (IIoT) and the advent of 5G. But IoT technologies have been widely used across multiple markets for a while, as have the Wi-Fi and 4G networks that enable them, so why the sudden surge for PMN? The key driver has been the slow rollout of 5G due to a lack of supporting infrastructure at carrier level.
5G networks are not going to impact mobile communications on a universal level for another five years at least, but embedded technologies in the meantime are becoming increasingly more advanced with “intelligence” built-in as the world goes digital. PMNs which are cloud based and require minimal infrastructure at ground level are meeting this infrastructure shortfall in the interim by providing the ultra-reliable low latency connectivity needed to guarantee performance and assure the high service levels for industries reliant on IoT for mission/safety/business critical communications.
Changing coverage requirements
Whilst mobile coverage may be universal, mobile signal quality is dependent on a range of factors including location, topography, number of users and the services used. Take that signal indoors and the signal quality immediately deteriorates by default because of a building’s physical attributes. Third-party technologies such as DAS, small cell, mobile repeaters etc are then typically deployed in commercial or mixed used buildings to overcome this issue. However, with the smart phenomenon on the increase and 5G technology available, albeit not mainstream, wireless connectivity needs stepping up because current Wi-Fi and 4G technology standards cannot provide the vast bandwidth, high data rates (1-20 Gbit/s), high security, reliability and scalability to facilitate true automation. Moreover, enterprises operating smart manufacturing want peace of mind that their premises will run 24x7 irrespective of location for business continuity and safety reasons, hence the drive for PMN.
Private Mobile Networks explained
In simple terms, a private mobile network is a system of connections that allow an organisation to take advantage of voice and data services as if the endpoints (smartphones, workstations, laptops, IoT sensors etc) were running on a local network. They use the same underlying technology as normal mobile networks that are managed by public operators but have two key differences:
- The core network infrastructure can be installed onsite or located in a colocation facility
- The network does not share traffic with any other mobile networks in the vicinity, giving those in charge total control over capacity, performance, safety and flexibility
Smart factories are the driving force behind PMNs. Smart assembly lines in vehicle manufacture, for example, require minimal human interaction but any network outages will bring a facility to a standstill, which is extremely costly. These facilities are also dependant on IoT data capture for operability and performance. Running your own network in these instances gives facilities managers total control over service allocation as well as detailed insight into every connected device/application, providing a detailed audit trail for traceability and accountability.
The NHS has been investigating viable ways of overhauling routine processes and logistics for a while. Indeed its long-term transformation plan first published in 2019 recognized that IoT and digitization were integral to realising performance targets, reducing waiting times, streamlining internal operations, and driving innovation in research and treatments. PMNs can empower healthcare establishments to tailor their network to meet the requirements of different services through network slicing. This is especially important for medical procedures controlled by IoT (Dialysis or laser surgery for example) because any interruption to service could literally result in a life-or-death situation.
Offshore energy companies
The offshore energy industry is typically not catered for by the MNOs and without some form of third-party connectivity infrastructure, the giant wind turbines, oil/gas rigs, and the fleet of support vessels have zero mobile coverage. Yet these working conditions are some of the most hazardous, with workers obliged to spend long periods of time working alone in extreme conditions. In parallel, offshore energy companies are increasingly implementing IoT to enable predictive maintenance and other smart applications to streamline operations and reduce overheads. Private mobile networks are the most viable option in many instances because they assure service reliability and performance. Moreover, having total network control helps ensure compliance with stringent health and safety regulations by generating a detailed audit trail of every connected device for traceability and accountability.
The practicalities of implementing a private mobile network
To build a private PMN, enterprises must purchase spectrum from the government, a mobile network operator (MNOs) or a third-party spectrum provider. They must then obtain the necessary equipment to connect all permitted devices/components/applications/technologies to the core network infrastructure.
Achieving this, however, is not without its challenges. Not only must the different devices/technologies/applications operate on a specific wireless spectrum, they must also be integrated with specific 5G technologies.
As the PMN market continues to grow, it will emphasize the key role channel partners and systems integrators will play in their successful deployment. Enterprises should look for those with in-depth experience in 5G networks and associated technologies to make the process as seamless as possible, and they must be wary of vendor lock-in. There are also regulatory requirements and spectrum availability issues that need to be addressed.