Private Networks

China well ahead on 5G private networks? Depends

China's numbers on 5G private networks can look impressive and confusing at the same time.

At this month's 5G Summit and User Congress, hosted by ZTE in Italy, Bi Qi, the important-sounding "chief expert" at China Telecom, said the operator was involved in over 4,500 "5G projects" and had more than 300 partners in different vertical industries.

Manufacturing, healthcare, travel, education and government services are among China Telecom's most popular use cases for 5G private wireless networks, although it is not entirely clear how many of these projects are commercial deployments.

Augmented reality could be a key application in private 5G networks. (Source: Huawei)
Augmented reality could be a key application in private 5G networks.
(Source: Huawei)

China Mobile and China Telecom have also presented similar strong numbers on "5G projects" with a range of different industry verticals, including mining. These figures, if taken at face value, might suggest that China has far more 5G private wireless networks than the rest of the world combined (assuming "5G projects" can be equated to private networks).

In May, China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said there were more than 5,300 5G private networks operating in the country – albeit of the virtual kind – but that seems to fall short of other numbers seen by Light Reading.

Want to know more about 5G? Check out our dedicated 5G content channel here on Light Reading.

China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom – one year into China's three-year "5G Application Set Sail Action Plan" – had apparently implemented 11,000, 8,000 and 9,000 commercial 5G projects, respectively, by July 2022.

The Set Sail plan, explains China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, involves policies designed to "vigorously promote" large-scale application of 5G across the country.

Depends on what you mean by private…

According to CCS Insight, there are currently around 4,500 private wireless networks worldwide (including China), with over 1,300 customers and 4 million active connections. The analyst firm – in collaboration with the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) – places China third behind the US and Germany in terms of "true" private wireless network activity.

"CCS Insight's definition of private networks only includes private networks with dedicated infrastructure, not virtual private networks," Luke Pearce, a senior analyst at CCS Insight, told Light Reading. "There are around 200 'standalone' private network deployments of this kind in China."

"China's definition of private 5G is very wide," agreed Pablo Tomasi, a principal analyst at Light Reading sister company Omdia. "It not only includes fully private networks, but also hybrid and MEC plays, along with the public network when using specific SLAs." A 'pure' private network, for Tomasi, is one that has a dedicated RAN and core.

… and don't forget about LTE

While CCS Insight envisages that 3GPP Release 17 and Release 18 (5G Advanced) will give 5G private networks a fillip in the second half of the decade, Pearce sees lots of life left in 4G.

"[5G Advanced] is a factor in our forecast model, and we are expecting an increase in the adoption curve for the number of 5G private mobile networks post-2025, but LTE-based private networks will still be relevant and remain the dominant deployment model until near the end of the decade," Pearce said.

Tomasi is more blunt. "You can serve 95% or so of use cases with private LTE and there is no real need for 5G," he said. "While 5G can bring benefits and eventually support additional use cases it is not essential."

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— Ken Wieland, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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