BT talks a big private networks game
Which type of service provider will organizations turn to to handle their private networks, assuming they don't fancy the DIY approach?
Lou Walker, technology lead for mobile private networks at BT – perhaps not surprisingly – pitched his employer as the best bet for various industry verticals.
He was fairly diplomatic, however. "There is a place for hyperscalers, systems integrators, MNOs and CSPs, but also organizations like BT, which cover a few bases across those organization types," he said.
Walker was speaking at the recent (and virtual) Private Networks European Forum, where he made it clear – despite his tactful phrasing – that BT was not only looking to take the prime lead in private wireless networks but also play a role as technology developer and (as far as Light Reading could make out) systems integrator to manage different use cases.
He downplayed, politely, AWS's recent foray into 5G private networks. "It's a fairly basic solution in terms of private networks and is clearly aimed at the SME mass market," he said.
Walker questioned whether AWS's type of solution would be suitable for "more complex, demanding requirements" of private networks, particularly in manufacturing and transport logistics that have mission-critical and safety-critical requirements.
"This is the other end of the scale where somebody like BT or a well-established SI can play in that area with the capabilities of delivering a connectivity solution that has required performance and availability, as well as support different use cases," asserted the BT man.
Walker added that the "beauty of 5G as a technology" means it can support enterprise transformation programs over time, through upcoming 3GPP Releases, and is capable of supporting lots of different requirements on the network.
"In those scenarios you need a prime supplier that not only has capabilities to provide the connectivity solution but also to do systems integration and manage the use cases to go on top [of connectivity]," he said. "Single accountability is important for an end-to-end solution."
BT channels its efforts on private networks through Division X, initially targeting five industries: healthcare, transport logistics, manufacturing, "smart places" and defense.
Talkin’ use cases …
Bhushan Patil, chief growth officer for networks at Tech Mahindra, an India-based SI, didn't sound convinced that telcos, generally speaking, were the best when it came to engaging with organizations about use cases.
"Telcos, in my view, are great at building the technology and creating the backbone, but when it comes to selling to an enterprise of different varieties, the language [that customers want] is about use cases," said Patil, speaking on the same panel session as Walker. "We can play an interesting role in closing the gap between technology and use cases."
Walker did point out, however, that "we've got a huge portfolio of use cases within BT" and rejected the notion – often leveled at telcos – of being overly fixated on technology at the expense of developing solutions.
"In the 5G private networks space, we don't actually like to talk about 5G private networks," he maintained. "We like to talk about business outcomes and use cases."
… and network slicing
Although network slicing is starting to be introduced over public macro networks, helped by 5G SA, Walker admits the technology is "not very mature." However, there seems to be firm interest in using it among enterprises.
"It's a very common ask from our customers to understand how they could use both their private network but also transition into the public network," he said.
There are 3GPP features to support 5G public network integrated (PNI) with non-public network (NPN), which allows roaming between isolated on-prem private networks and public networks, but Walker cautioned about getting too excited.
"We need to know the use cases [that can take advantage of 5G PNI-NPN], and what we can deliver compared to a private network," Walker said.
He seemed skeptical about offering guaranteed performance levels when using the public network due to "contention" of network resources. "There's no guarantee of resources for one individual organization, so it won't fit every use case," said Walker.
He added that enterprise use cases tend to be more "uplink-centric" than the public network, which is another 5G PNI-NPN limitation.
If you love private networks, set them free
"The very second you liberate spectrum, the market starts accelerating," said Koen Mioulet, secretary of EUWENA (European Users Wireless Enterprise Network Association). "It's no coincidence that the UK and Germany are doing well."
When organizations are at the "mercy of the operator" and can't apply to national regulators for localized license concessions (usually campus-wide or property-wide), Mioulet said market growth is stymied. He ruefully noted that the Netherlands (his home market) had yet to decide on private spectrum awards, putting it well behind other European countries.
Mioulet's views were borne out by presentations from Nina Percival, interim director of spectrum management and authorization at UK regulator Ofcom, and Alexander Kühn, head of international and national spectrum management at BNetzA, Germany's regulator.
Since Ofcom introduced "shared access" spectrum on a localized basis in 2019, Percival said 1,600 licenses have been issued. Of that number, over 1,000 have been awarded in the 1800MHz band (where 2x3.3MHz is available on a shared access basis) and some 500 in the 3.8–4.2GHz band (390MHz available). Shared access spectrum is also available at 2.3GHz (10MHz), as well as at 24.25–26.5GHz (2GHz).
In Germany, more than 250 private wireless networks run on local spectrum between 3.7GHz and 3.8GHz. "Up until now, everybody who has applied for a license has been granted one," said Kühn.
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— Ken Wieland, contributing editor, special to Light Reading