With the increasingly global adoption of LTE/4G technology, greater opportunities for private LTE networks are emerging. According to ABI Research, by 2025 those sectors using private LTE will create a market worth $16.3 billion – a CAGR of 45 per cent since 2018.
ABI defines a private LTE network as one that is built for a specific use case; a local network that uses dedicated radio equipment to provide service to a limited area. Of course, private communications networks are nothing new – closed networks have been in use by many verticals, including public safety, the military and transport sectors for decades. They typically rely on narrowband networks such as TETRA or P25 for their voice and some data capability, and use dedicated and licensed spectrum.
Although reliable and secure, the narrowband bearers are designed primarily to carry voice, and are not candidates for a world where activities need powerful data connectivity. The sectors which are looking at private networks now are much more complex environments, where people and processes need to interconnect, where machines are controlled by cloud applications, and where critical procedures need the capability of broadband networks.
A private LTE network is the beginning of and the basis for the IoT, enabling connected devices to operate within defined areas and transforming ways of working by delivering the flexibility and capability of a broadband cellular network deployed in a manner to suit each individual organization. LTE has a configurable Quality of Service layer, and a private network can be set up with priority levels according to the type of data, with optimal levels of availability and latency.
Many vertical markets can benefit from private LTE networks: healthcare, extraction (oil and gas, mining), cities and municipalities aiming for ‘smart’ status, public safety, and transport – railways for example – to name just a few. A private network is scalable, and can be as small as one cell site, or as large as required.
As LTE is the dominant technology used for commercial mobile service, a private LTE deployment will benefit from all the investment, innovation and cost efficiencies that come from economies of scale. The open 3GPP LTE standard means that infrastructure and devices can be sourced from a number of suppliers, so budgets can be controlled with no expensive lock-in to proprietary equipment. A future-proof, private, LTE network can be the foundation of how each organization can get maximum benefit from the emerging 5G ‘network of networks’, as users can identify and incorporate each relevant advance as it becomes available.
The ABI report cites spectrum confusion as one of the reasons that private LTE has been slow to gain momentum but, led by the US, a new approach to spectrum using Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) is beginning to catalyze the market. Organizations looking to benefit from private LTE systems can acquire spectrum according to their needs. In addition, with some countries looking at auctioning spectrum on a regional basis, the outlook for private LTE is becoming clearer with this shift in approach to spectrum management and assignment.
The work carried out by 3GPP to standardize mission critical (MC) level push-to-talk, video and data (collectively known as MCX) over LTE also gives users the confidence that services are being developed that meet the critical requirements of public safety users, where lives can depend on the ability to effectively communicate. IHS Markit predicts that by 2020, there will be approximately 1.6 million connected public safety devices on private LTE networks globally. That’s a small number compared to commercial LTE, but it demonstrates that LTE can be the trusted bearer for the most demanding of users.
A private LTE network is not simply a self-contained island of connectivity – it should be seen rather as the central resource from which peripherals can be managed, and access to other networks can be facilitated and controlled to ensure the private network can deliver the best possible range of services to the users and the organization. Using a private LTE router or gateway, it becomes possible to connect local area networks or to extend a fixed network in a remote location where it is impractical to implement wired connections. These gateways can enable uninterrupted connectivity within first responder vehicles such as ambulances, police cars and fire and rescue trucks, with the broadband network capability enabling bandwidth-heavy applications such as live streaming video.
Cameras, CCTV monitoring, GPS applications, telemetry – the opportunities for extensions of a private LTE network are myriad. It is important to bear in mind the security aspects however, as while LTE has high levels including OTA encryption and SIM-based authentication, a network is only as secure as its weakest link. This needs to be a consideration when extending the private LTE network with other bearers such as wi-fi and the variety of technologies currently comprising the IoT. Where sensitive data or voice conversations are required to be carried over the private network, or where critical machinery is being operated and controlled, the highest levels of security are required.
From an IoT perspective, private LTE networks can deliver many benefits to many sectors – not only those where the use of commercial cellular networks is established, but for operations such as mining and offshore activities that are out of the standard LTE coverage footprint. There is an increasing interest in this developing market; and building strong relationships with experienced suppliers is key to success, as there are many different approaches to consider depending on the use case.
Whatever the business driver – whether it is simply to improve coverage, maybe to create a completely closed and controlled system to run a classified facility – what is standard across all the use cases is the availability and the flexibility of LTE for a private enterprise network. As ABI and others have noted, this is a market set for considerable growth.
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