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May 20, 2022
Everyone is excited about the market for private wireless networking. And that's no surprise: It affords all the companies that cut their teeth building big, public 4G and 5G networks the chance to leverage that work into the enterprise space – where margins might be much more attractive.
Moreover, it could ultimately grow into a significant opportunity. Nokia, an early mover in the space that now counts almost 500 private wireless deployments around the world, in 2019 forecast that the private wireless opportunity could eventually double the size of the commercial wireless industry in terms of total global cell sites.
To be clear, Nokia is by no means alone in chasing the private wireless opportunity. The sector is a veritable battle royale as infrastructure providers like Ericsson and Airspan compete directly with cloud computing giants like Microsoft and Amazon, wireless network operators like AT&T and Dish Network and startups ranging from Betacom to Celona to Artemis.
Figure 1: Dish has installed a number of cell towers around the country.
As a result, the telecom industry's focus on this sector is hardening and narrowing: Private wireless networking has become arguably the top talking point among attendees at recent trade shows like Light Reading's own Big 5G Event, held this week in Austin.
But the sector remains in its infancy, and it will need to show some real traction in order to gain steam. Also, there's a very, very good chance that traditional, incumbent telecom companies – the Verizons and Ericssons of the world – will not be able to cash in on the obvious advantages they have.
Coming out of the shadows
In a signal of a maturing sector, vendors are finally beginning to trot out actual, real-world private wireless deployments with enterprise companies. For example, AT&T has touted a 5G network to fill in coverage gaps near Phillips 66's oil refineries in Belle Chasse; Dish is using its spectrum in a network for Duke University; and Artemis is touting its pCell technology via a deployment at the SAP Center sports stadium in San Jose.
This is an important development because it helps bring clarity and heft to a concept that, until just recently, felt more like a PowerPoint presentation than a real market opportunity.
But hard questions remain. Are such deployments intended only for demonstration purposes, or are they actually solving an enterprise customer's problem? Do they involve a few transmitters covering a relatively small geographic area, or does the network actually cover the business' full operations? Is it a one-off deployment designed for a single application, or is it being rolled out as a platform that's also intended for tomorrow's services? Most importantly, can the user or the vendor provide any financial details in a public setting?
These are the kinds of questions that companies in the private wireless networking space ought to start answering as they prepare for the fall trade show circuit. Simply talking about a portfolio of private wireless networking products isn't going to be enough to pull this sector forward. Players in the space need to start showing off actual wins, allowing sunlight to help generate momentum. Otherwise, the industry risks falling into navel-gazing apathy while opportunity moves elsewhere.
Moving at the speed of telecom
Beyond the need for sunshine, a bigger problem facing the sector is the distinct possibility that telecom players in general will be too clunky to meet enterprises' diverse networking needs.
For example, Dish has argued that its cloud-native, open RAN, standalone 5G network design will feature application programming interfaces (APIs) that will give enterprise customers direct control over their network usage. The result, according to company officials, will be a new way of consuming mobile bandwidth that incumbents cannot match.
Similarly, Microsoft is touting the capabilities that its Azure customers can get from connections into its edge computing functions. For example, the company said enterprises will be able to route their 5G video traffic through local Azure computing resources, thereby dramatically reducing the amount of network bandwidth they'll need.
The traditional telecom industry isn't ignorant of such capabilities. Exactly a decade ago, the GSMA acquired the Wholesale Application Community (WAC) and used it to introduce the OneAPI Exchange. The goal was to allow network operators to create a set of standardized, web-friendly application programming interfaces (API) for developers.
That effort failed, which paved the way for companies like Twilio to create their own interfaces between enterprise customers and telecom networks – essentially profiting off network operators' general inability to cater to enterprise needs.
The trend continues through to today. The Rich Communications Services (RCS) standard has long been touted as a way to allow businesses to communicate directly with customers, in a way that would allow operators to take a cut of the resulting revenues. But most operators around the world haven't been able to implement that kind of a setup.
What all this means for telecom's pursuit of the private wireless networking opportunity is unclear. Will history repeat itself? Or will big 5G vendors and operators be able to properly tailor their services to the enterprise crowd in a timely fashion? Ultimately, network operators remain the gatekeepers to commercial mobile networks and most licensed spectrum resources – a key position in the private networking industry. But preventing access to something is not a way to make money from it.
Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading
Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.
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