One of the most difficult challenges that the dream of a global, ubiquitous, 5G radio network faces is security. Public radio networks are going to be challenging to secure – especially with the homogeneity required to bring all the iterations of wireless technology under the 5G umbrella. It will take a while to figure this out.
Given that, there is a movement brewing to examine private networks under the 5G umbrella. Why? Because the present model of private radio nets has had the luxury of keeping nets fairly secure. That model is going to have legs in 5G, as well.
Of late, multiple industries and segments are looking at private networks using 3GPP NR standards. Initial use cases are developing, mainly, in Internet of Everything/Everyone (IoX), more specifically what is called the industrial Internet of things (IIoT).
Now, this is not to be mistaken for autonomous vehicle, roaming medical devices (outside of the controlled environment) or other interconnected networks. This is focused on local, contained, bounded networks (factories, hospitals, campuses, public safety centers, and such).
Such private networks are used to keep data communications within a specific geographic location and, for a specific purpose. Why they are gaining traction is simple – security in an ever-evolving attack surface.
The reasons for high-security networks are obvious. Certain segments, such as manufacturing, medical, autonomous vehicles, finance, critical communications, and others are looking at keeping their 5G networks private so they can control access, making security much easier. In fact, there is so much interest in secure private networks that Qualcomm is already working on 5G NR technologies for such applications.
Private networks have the luxury of using proprietary technologies that cannot exist in public networks, while reaping the benefits of 5G technologies. These networks have their own metrics and parameters, and requirements to both keep data secure and constrained to specific area.
Private networks allow for in-house 5G provisioning and enable enterprises to define their own security implementations rather than trusting mobile network operators (MNOs). It will also allow sensitive, proprietary data to stay local.
The concept is not new. What is new is that 5G NR technologies can accommodate the skyrocketing data that is going to be present across such networks. This has been difficult with existing technologies so one can understand the excitement.
Take, for example, the automotive industry. This is a segment that is very interested in private networks for their factories. In fact, several automakers; BMW, Daimler (Mercedes), and Volkswagen have expressed interest to the Federal Network Agency (BNA) German spectrum manager that they want to operate and maintain private (local) 5G networks.
For them, they intend to replace wired industrial Ethernet factory links with secure, ultra-reliable, ultra-low latency, 5G NR links. Such factories are adopting a reconfigurable composition for next-generation manufacturing and wireless makes it much easier (and cheaper) to support that. It also offers much greater flexibility versus hardwire.
There seems to be quite a market for the kind of stringent privacy and security restrictions that can be delivered by going private. Such networks can also offer the advantage of custom configuration of ultra-reliable and low-latency technology. They can be function-specific and tailored to exacting real-time performance requirements because the requirement of public network interconnect is not a consideration.
The use cases certainly make sense. With the rapid shift to AI-based automation, the amount of data that is expected to be generated will be voluminous. Add machine learning-capable robots, virtual everything, real-time, on the fly, manufacturing updates; holographic technologies, drone monitoring, and one can, readily, see the need for wideband, ultra-reliable and low-latency requirements.
However, while this is all well and good, it still needs to port to 5G and the challenge here is spectrum. The industry knows how to do this. As I had mentioned earlier, private networks are not new. But in 5G, they have a different set of metrics – from frequency to security, from what exists in present systems. And of course, there is the nagging question of where the spectrum is going to come from.
In the U.S., Citizen Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) at 3.5 GHz is about to become available. That is being looked at with salivatory eyeballs. mmWave is also a contender. The big technical issues are coverage and penetration. Many factories, hospitals, city centers, and more, have a conglomeration of construction elements. That can become challenging for point-to-point/multipoint links in many cases.
Still, this segment is garnering a lot of interest due to its ability to offer levels of security that public networks can only dream of. It is early in the game and there are a lot of unknowns. But it is emerging as a major use case for 5G technologies.