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China edges forward on 5G private networks

If there's one thing everyone agrees on, it is that enterprise 5G promises to be a big deal for operators.

But 5G's rich capabilities don't just empower customers. They also create openings that rivals such as Microsoft or even vendor partners can enter, threatening to end the feast before it begins.

In Europe and North America, this is being foreshadowed by the opening of CBRS and other unlicensed bands.

In Asia, Nokia has just been signed to deliver a private network to a Toyota division. Two months ago Fujitsu launched Japan's first 5G private network.

In China, however, it's business as usual. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) has designated 5G spectrum and private networking as yet further monopolies for the state-owned operators.

But unusually it has encountered pushback from industry, local governments and experts.

A crack in the edifice appeared in March when, in unveiling measures to reboot the economy at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, MIIT committed to allowing research into private networks.

At the same time, government departments in wealthy Guangdong province applied for permission to run private network pilots in fields such as smart manufacturing, power grids, highways, shipping, oil and gas pipelines, and government.

These plans have received widespread industry attention, although at this stage it's not clear if any of these will go ahead. Typically, once a new technology reaches pilot stage it eventually becomes fully licensed, even if it takes years.

Even so it appears that these state-run provincial services are the outer boundary of private networking in China.

There is no precedent for the MIIT allocating spectrum to any private business. Which means that China's controversial industry transformation will have to wait on the slow-moving state telcos.

The operators themselves are defending their monopoly with some familiar arguments: that allocating spectrum to verticals is wasteful, difficult and costly, and that operator networks are more advanced. One China Unicom researcher, An Gang, has even asserted that private networks are "one and a half generations" behind the operators' 5G networks.

But in remarks that could be addressed to ambitious western telcos as well, Prof Li Shaoqian from University of Electronic Science and Technology, said that while 5G theoretically could serve hundreds of industries, in reality operators aren't equipped to serve them.

There are no unified standards for edge computing and network slicing, he told CCID.com. "The requirements for each vertical are highly complex and personalized, and operators are not familiar with them."

— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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