Service providers need to become enterprise experts to profit from the private networking opportunity.
Until now, service providers have mostly focused on delivering WAN connectivity -- their expertise ended at the edge of the enterprise customer premises. But private networks give service providers an opportunity to become experts at on-premises networks as well, to become partners in enterprise customers' digital transformation.
That market already exists but is set to grow: According to research house Mobile Experts, the private wireless networks sector was already worth more than $1.5 billion in 2018 and is forecast to be worth $3.4 billion by 2024. Other analysts put a much higher value on the market opportunity -- ABI Research reckons it will be worth $16.3 billion by 2025, for example.
Whatever the value, the spoils will be hard fought over as wireless operators, vendors and system integrators battle to be the prime partners of major enterprises: Nokia, for example, is currently reaping the rewards of some early focus on the needs of private network operators.
For network operators to cash in, they need to develop that expertise for business success in the era of private networks.
"It used to be that when we looked at networks, we were outside in. Now we can go inside out," Derek Peterson, Boingo Wireless CTO, said on a panel at Mobile World Congress Americas in Los Angeles last month.
Verizon stays on top of its enterprise customer needs by channeling information and insight from the service provider's own sales teams, said panelist Justin Blair, Verizon executive director. Verizon also goes to transportation and other vertical industry events, and visits customer facilities. Visiting a rail yard or manufacturing facility can be highly educational about what customers actually need from connectivity.
Service providers need to learn to speak their customers' language, Blair says. "We may have the best thing they need and they may know they need it, but they won't get it if we don't speak their language," he said.
Enterprise IT is just starting to learn their own business needs -- as opposed to being technology focused -- and service providers need to follow that lead, Peterson said. "Every industry has IT getting out of the closet or out of the basement. When IT gets out of the basement and starts looking at the business, it's a good thing," he said.
What's driving private network acceptance?
Private networks are gaining market acceptance as emerging technologies such as virtualized networks and new 5G standards make them more practical, said GSMA Intelligence head Peter Jarich.
"There's definitely an allure to 5G. People want to put everything on 5G," noted Verizon's Blair. LTE and WiFi can be useful, but for advanced applications such as computer vision and virtual reality, 5G can deliver enhanced capabilities.
But service providers shouldn't wait for 5G before deploying private networks, Peterson says. They should start with available technology and add 5G when it becomes practical. "As we improve we'll go down the journey and add more and more connectivity," Peterson said.
WiFi and cellular service will play together on some private networks, depending on the vertical, Blair said. Verticals with existing WiFi will continue to use that in many cases, but some use cases will require LTE or 5G.
"We're not just connecting things that are wireless today with different wireless technology," Blair said. "We're saying, 'imagine a world without wires. What are you wiring today that you hate wiring?'"
Identity is key to achieving coexistence between multiple types of networks, including WiFi. Devices need to be tied to individual identities, and then it will become simpler to move from one network to another, between public and private, WiFi and cellular, Peterson said.
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— Mitch Wagner Executive Editor, Light Reading