5G private networks are surging in popularity—here’s why

Private cellular networks, which can be built on licensed or unlicensed spectrum, currently tend to be used by organizations to increase connectivity between systems and secure critical infrastructure, according to Dan Littmann, principal and national sector leader for telecommunications at Deloitte Consulting.

“The initial use case is about connectivity,” Littmann said. “How do I get conductivity within my enterprises to places where I’m conductivity challenged? That can be in large outdoor spaces; that can be in a factory where there’s a lot of metal and there’s a lot of interference that my current networks can’t handle.”

Private cellular networks didn’t begin in the 5G era—the practice stretches back before the 4G era, Littman said. But with the advent of 5G and the availability of unlicensed spectrum, they are now becoming “much more pervasive” than ever, he said.

Privacy, please

While public networks are typically operated by the telecom giants of the world, with millions of users being able to access the network when in range, private networks are closed systems used by organizations looking for improved latency and stronger security.

For now, early adopters are mostly looking to build out 5G private networks to provide connectivity for critical infrastructure, like manufacturing warehouses or oil refineries, Littman said. But, he added, the expectation is that they will find other, more advanced uses in the future.

One group that seems particularly keen on these networks right now is airports, Brian Watkins, EVP of sales and business development and 5GaaS at Betacom, told Emerging Tech Brew.

“The industry that’s most aggressively adopting this right now is the airport industry,” he told us. “An airport is a smart city. An airport looks like any small town in America—well, actually, a large town.”

One example: Dallas Love Field Airport entered into a partnership with Boingo Wireless in 2018 to trial a 5G private network, which Boingo claimed was, at the time, the first in the country. In 2021, the Department of Aviation kicked off a test base for a 5G private network at Dallas Love Field, the airport’s operations technology manager, Robert Chambliss, told us in an emailed statement.

Chambliss said the test base has since expanded, with the network now implemented throughout the airport’s single terminal. The airport’s operations technology department is considering additional uses for 5G in the terminal such as cameras, lighting, smart vehicles, and IoT devices, he added.

As of August 2022, 21 airports worldwide were known to have deployed private networks, according per Global Mobile Suppliers Association. Sectors like manufacturing, education, mining, and utilities all had more known deployments at the time, according to the report.

Looking ahead, Littmann said that private 5G networks could become a “transformative technology” when the infrastructure is built out for advanced use cases like asset tracking, autonomous mobile robots in factories, digital-twin use, and remote assistance, a process that he predicts could become reality three years from now.