Business Transformation

The Promise (and Security) of Private 5G

For ultra-complex enterprises, new private 5G networks offer the technology’s benefits and beefier endpoint security.

The Marine Corps Logistics Base in Albany, Ga., one of the service’s main supply and maintenance centers, covers more than 3,300 acres, and its 69 buildings encompass more than a million square feet of storage and repair facilities. One building alone encloses 120,000 square feet, bigger than two football fields.

The site is a test bed for the Defense Department’s planned deployment of 5G wireless technology, which will be used to create a smart warehouse where parts and equipment will be organized, stored and tracked electronically. “Robots, forklifts, video cameras — everything can be connected to this high-speed network that they control,” says Allen Proithis, a telecommunications consultant working on the pilot project.

Providing wireless networking in this kind of environment is a particularly difficult task. Wi-Fi networking isn’t up to the job because of concerns about reliability and security. Security is also an issue with public cellular networks — a no-go given the Marine Corps’ strict requirements.

This is where private-network 5G comes in, offering the range of cellular, Wi-Fi’s ease of use and better endpoint security than both. In a building the size of the MCLB’s, which would require dozens of Wi-Fi access points to cover, a single 5G antenna, properly placed, could reach every corner of the building.

Commercial versions of 5G, the next-generation wireless technology, have been widely touted by cellular companies, but it has its drawbacks for device-intensive, high-security enterprises such as the Marine Logistics Base.

Unlike public 5G, which includes several different parts of the wireless spectrum, private 5G networks inhabit a relatively narrow band, making it considerably easier to manage. It’s also more secure because data remains on the enterprise’s own network instead of being transmitted over public networks. And organizations don’t have to pay a telecom carrier for access. (Private 5G can also be implemented by contracting with third-party providers, a necessarily less secure option.)

Spectrum play

Private 5G networks also offer advantages over enterprise Wi-Fi applications. It’s as easy to implement as Wi-Fi, but more reliable and less vulnerable to interference. It’s also harder to eavesdrop on than notoriously insecure Wi-Fi networks. Some experts predict that private 5G and its successors could someday do away with Wi-Fi altogether.

“It’s dedicated, private coverage wherever you want it, and you control it from end to end,” Proithis says. Implementing on-premise Private 5G service involves installing one or more small antenna towers plus routers and other infrastructure to manage a network, which is usually done through a third party. The overall configuration is similar to that of a telecom network, just on a much smaller scale.

Private 5G applications began to emerge when the U.S. Federal Communications Commission opened up 150MHz of prized bandwidth last year, paving the way for a new wireless data standard. The Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) “innovation band” spectrum offers the same type of speed and range found with high-speed cellular networks, but more securely. The CBRS inhabits a portion of spectrum that can also be used without an official license.

With its enhanced security and much better bandwidth, private 5G could open the door for technologies like augmented reality (AR) and other data-hungry applications that are currently out of reach for most mobile services.

Emerging use cases 

Private 5G networks are a natural fit in the manufacturing sector. John Deere is deploying the technology for high-speed video analytics in its equipment factories, according to reports in LightReading and other publications, and believes it could play a role in building autonomous tractors.

Orlando Remédios, CEO of Sensefinity, which engineers and markets a supply-chain tracking platform, says that his customers in the chemical industry are also moving to private 5G technologies instead of Wi-Fi to monitor the movement of products as they move from the factory to distribution to customers. “Running private networks will allow for lower [total cost of ownership] than using a provider’s infrastructure, while ensuring optimal coverage,” Remédios says.

The Spring Grove Area School District in southern Pennsylvania is also considering a private 5G network to reach remote-learning students and staff stuck at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The district discovered that many of its students either lacked internet access at home or depended on cobbled-together hotspots and other unreliable connections. The area is rural, with rolling hills that tend to block public cellular signals and homes that are spread across miles.

The range of private 5G — up to 3 miles, depending on terrain — could allow the district to provide internet services to all the students of a particular school with only one or two towers. The district is conducting a feasibility study to begin the process, says George Ioannidis, the district’s superintendent.

“My goal is for every one of our students to have an equal opportunity to access our programs and be connected to their school if they can’t be there in person,” Ioannidis says.

[Read also: How one large U.S. school district protects its data]

While the technology is still in its infancy, private 5G is clearly on the rise, with the infrastructure and device market growing over 7% in 2020 in spite of COVID-19, according to Mobile Experts. Furthermore, the company predicts that private 5G services will continue to grow, ultimately accounting for 25% of the overall private wireless market by 2026. 

That’s not a death knell for Wi-Fi yet, but that could change rapidly as this equipment becomes more widely available and easier to implement.

Christopher Null
Christopher Null is a veteran technology and business journalist with more than 25 years of experience writing for Yahoo, Wired, Forbes, and more. He was a top editor at PC Computing¸ Smart Business, and New Architect and was the founding editor of Mobile magazine.