19 May 2022

Identifying the challenges for cellular private networking

The UK has been working on private cellular networks for over 20 years. I first saw an enterprise GSM small cell in 2001 and witnessed the (moderate) enthusiasm for Ofcom’s lower-power, light-licensed private spectrum in the DECT guard bard, around 2006-7.  

Yet it is only in the last 2-3 years that private networks have seemed to be turning into a mass-scale marketplace, both with 4G and 5G opportunities.  

However, there still remain challenges to adoption. It is worth looking both forward – and back to the UK’s unique private cellular history – to understand what issues may arise and how to counter them. 

  • Awareness: Perhaps the most basic gap for private networks in the UK is simple awareness of the potential. While this has improved, there are still many business heads and enterprise IT leaders who are unaware of the range of use-cases, equipment choices, supply pathways – or key elements like local/shared spectrum. Both industry and government need to redouble their outreach, both generally and in specific contexts and verticals. 
  • Cost: While cloud-delivered cores, local spectrum and commodity small cells are broadening the affordability of private networks, more work is needed. Initial capex outlays can seem high for early (and often basic) use-cases, even if there is a roadmap to wider usage subsequently. Reduced cost elements and perhaps external financing could widen the marketplace. 
  • Complexity: While there have been admirable efforts to make private networks “as easy as Wi-Fi”, the fact remains that there are many more “moving parts” involved. SIMs and eSIMs, different frequency bands and 3GPP generations, potentially IMS and VoLTE for telephony services and much more. While “as-a-service” offers and automation can abstract this complexity, some enterprises’ IT functions will prefer to see inside the “black box” 
  • Skills: Linked to complexity is the issue of skills and training. Very few enterprise IT/network engineers have deep expertise in 4G/5G networks, while similarly few mobile network engineers have deep understanding of specific enterprise verticals and their network environments, especially for brownfield sites with other technologies embedded. There is both a need – and a commercial opportunity – for much more training and education. 
  • Devices: The UK now has a number of spectrum options for private networks. However, some of these (notably the 3.8-4.2GHz shared-access band) have only limited support in modern devices and chipsets. While this is now improving, especially for smartphones, there are still limitations in obtaining suitable IoT devices. There can also be issues with device configuration in terms of support for later 3GPP versions, as well as dealing with support for eSIM, VoLTE and other features that may be needed in private network scenarios. 
  • Fragmentation: The global market for private networks is quite fragmented. While there are 4G/5G spectrum bands for enterprises in a growing set of countries, they have many different local “flavours” in terms of bands, power, application methods and other rules. This makes it tough for large companies to deploy similar solutions across their global footprint, in contrast to Wi-Fi or ethernet. Some harmonisation is likely to arise in future, but there will still need to be customisation and localisation in many cases. 
  • Substitution: While private cellular networks are evolving rapidly, the alternative options are not standing still either. Wi-Fi in particular is gaining new capabilities in its 6, 6E and 7 generations, especially when combined with new 6GHz spectrum. For wider areas and fixed-wireless applications, a variety of possibilities ranging from 60GHz Terragraph systems to LEO satellites are becoming viable. LoRa is a popular alternative to NB-IoT. The future will be heterogeneous – and not necessarily converged. 
  • Mobile industry politics: The last challenge to private networks comes from the internal politics of the mobile industry. Put bluntly, the incumbent mobile operators – and their industry bodies – often push back against being excluded from enterprise 4G/5G solutions. They have regularly pushed back against spectrum allocations for private networks, for example. There is also an unwillingness to work with neutral host providers – a sister domain to private networks. 

None of these issues is insuperable, as the current robust market growth illustrates. Nevertheless, the UK industry must not be complacent in any of these areas, if it wants to reach the full potential of this important domain for network innovation. 

Private Networks User Guides & podcast

Private networks: a new user guide by techUK

Our #techUKPrivateNetworks campaign week celebrated the publication of a new user guide techUK has produced, to help prospective private networks customers, across enterprise and the public sector, understand the key benefits of adopting advanced connectivity in their organisations. The guide helps users as they formulate a business case for investing in enhanced private networks, and the key success factors. We also shine a spotlight on several case studies. 

Private networks: a techUK user guide

Gain a clear understanding of the benefits of adopting private network technology for your business with this techUK user guide.

Download for free

Private network ecosystem: Management model - A new techUK guide

techUK's Advanced Communications Services Working Group created a new guide for organisations considering building out services using 5G networking technology entitled 'Private network ecosystem: Management model'

It introduces and describes the principles of neutral hosts, and then goes on to describe the architecture and ecosystem which supports the provision of shared services, particularly in the context of high capacity/low latency applications, which will drive 5G deployment. While this paper is focussed on 5G, many of the principles of neutral hosts, and the discussion of edge versus core provision will apply to other technologies such as Wi-Fi, including Wi-Fi 6.

Private network ecosystem: Management model

A technical guide by techUK for users of private networks, outlining how the ecosystem is managed. It outlines the architecture of edge native applications in the architecture of the ecosystem, the value chain and operating models, resilience, operations, and the role of Neutral Hosts. 

Download for free


The techUK podcast: Making the case for Private Networks

In this episode of the techUK podcast, we explore the topic of private networks for enterprise, specifically, how we can accelerate the deployment of private networks from beyond the testbed phase and drive adoption across industry and the public sector.  

The episode covers the key challenges for enterprise customers that the telecoms sector can address with advanced connectivity services, including 5G and Wi-Fi 6, and how we, the supplier base, can effectively deliver on the benefits of private networks. 

Sophie James, Head of Telecoms and Spectrum Policy at techUK, joins a conversation with Simon Parry, CTO at Nokia EnterpriseCatherine Gull, Consultant at Cellnex and Dez O’Connor, Senior Manager at Cisco. Sophie also catches up with Mike Kennett, Senior Consultant & Head of Regulatory Affairs at Freshwave



Guest blog by Dean Bubley, Director, Disruptive Analysis — Follow @DisruptiveDean on Twitter and LinkedIn 

To read more from the Future Private Networks campaign week check out our landing page here