Many forward-looking enterprises are exploring how private cellular networks, 5G and edge computing technologies (henceforth referred to as “private 5G networks”) can create more value for their organisations. However, the adoption of private 5G networks is happening slower than many industry pundits predicted. Market data seems to support this as growth for private-wireless radio access network (RAN) equipment, a proxy for private networks, has been weaker than expected, as enterprises have been slow to move from trials to commercial operation.1 Other factors have hindered broadscale deployments, including persistent supply chain issues, lack of 5G-enabled user equipment and ecosystem immaturity.
Despite these obstacles, many companies appear willing to work through the challenges to realise the transformational potential of private 5G networks. There were 748 private network deployments in enterprises worldwide in January 2022, up roughly 14% since November 2021 and almost 43% since September 2021, according to the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA), which tracks private network deployments globally (see figure 1). 5G adoption is also rising, GSA data shows, with the percentage of 5G and 5G/LTE combination networks rising from 25% in November 2021 to 33% of total networks in January 2022.2 Many adopters are proceeding with 5G-ready LTE (5G and LTE) deployments, which can be upgraded easily to 5G via software as the device ecosystem matures.
From this data, it appears that many organisations are piloting private 5G networks to learn and experiment firsthand with what they can achieve in their specific environment. The process, however, can take a long time. The experience of one port operator provides many anecdotal lessons.3 When the port operator started exploring private 5G networks almost four years ago, there were few real-life proof points or commercial use cases to learn from. Thus, it began its education through discussions with several network equipment makers and brought in an independent consultant to help assess what it was hearing.
Based on these discussions, the port operator built a pilot network and experimented with connecting equipment to figure out what the technology could do. Despite challenges, the organisation became truly convinced and committed to the potential benefits of a private 5G network.
One reason was its current reliance on autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs). For decades, the port operator has relied on AGVs, but their use was confined to walled-off areas, away from where people work, for safety reasons. With a private 5G network, it saw the potential to untether AGVs and expand their use in broader public areas. For AGVs to navigate high-traffic areas autonomously, they require real-time onboard decisioning systems powered by dense sensor networks, super-fast data processing and ultra-reliable connectivity that can quickly hand off signals from one cell to another. 5G presents a superior option over fibre cables, Wi-Fi, and even LTE-based networks because it offers high-performance connectivity over wide coverage areas using relatively few access points compared to other technologies. For instance, a different port operator is reported to have replaced 200 Wi-Fi access points with only five 5G access points.4
Assess the current state of operations and identify gaps between your organisation and customer/industry expectations. Are there areas where the lack of real-time data or connectivity issues prevent your company from achieving its full potential?
The journey will involve learning about, selecting, and bringing together different vendors with various capabilities spanning networks, spectrum, sensors, applications, analytics, etc. and integrating them into workable solutions. Task someone in your organisation to own the project and push it forward.
The ease and cost of building private 5G networks are improving rapidly as technologies and ecosystems mature. Even so, a single application rarely justifies the initial investment. The return on investment, however, can improve exponentially as enterprises add more applications to the base network.5 Private 5G networks create a flexible platform for innovation since they can support multiple applications with very different requirements including drone-based inspection or delivery systems, digital twin optimisation tools, camera-based asset tracking and security solutions, and other demanding, time-sensitive applications as needed over time.
There is always a leap of faith with any new cutting-edge technology. Yet, there are also believers with the confidence to push forward and create a better future for their organisations. Private 5G networks can help provide that foundation for sustainable competitive advantage.
Deloitte’s Technology, Media & Telecommunications (TMT) industry practice brings together one of the world’s largest group of specialists respected for helping shape many of the world’s most recognised TMT brands—and helping those brands thrive in a digital world.