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Understanding Private 5G LANs in the Enterprise

As the technology matures and costs begin to drop, 5G LAN looks more like a realistic replacement for corporate Wi-Fi networks.

Wireless connectivity in the enterprise has long been the domain of Wi-Fi technologies, but that paradigm is changing with the onset of 5G. It's a fundamental shift that has given rise to a market for private 5G LANs.

Of course, the shift from Wi-Fi to 5G is not a zero-sum game. They can certainly exist in the same environments together, offering complementary functionalities. "Both 5G and Wi-Fi 6 [...] provide higher speeds, lower latency, and increased capacity over their predecessors," says Sujatha Gopal, chief architect and consulting partner at Tata Consultancy Services.

The two technologies provide fundamentally the same thing — high-quality Internet access — but come to it differently, so it's something of an apples-to-oranges comparison.

Wi-Fi uses unlicensed spectrum, has lower deployment and maintenance costs, and is ideal for connecting large numbers of devices like PCs and tablets. Secure access requires SSIDs, which requires end users to manually authenticate at least once. (Open networks, of course, require no gatekeeping but are inherently insecure.)

5G (and its predecessor, LTE) is a service mobile carriers provide that requires a subscription of some kind for access. It offers a wider range for connectivity and is ideal for connecting swaths of mobile devices, from smartphones to smart devices to connected cars. Authentication requires less human intervention than Wi-Fi; 5G relies upon on-device SIMs instead of SSIDs, and although private 5G LANs offer granular access management as a feature, end users don't have to do anything to connect.

"Ultimately, using 5G or Wi-Fi 6 depends on the specific use case," says Gopal.

Enterprises can get the most out of 5G by using the technology to create a private LAN. Ostensibly, this combines the simplicity of a typical wireless LAN with the benefits of 5G technology.

5G LANs operate on the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum. The FCC created new rules in 2015 that allowed for a three-tiered spectrum access and authorization system. The changes paved the way for the CBRS to allow companies to create private 5G LANs on the third (free) tier. The CBRS prevents similar networks from interfering with one another.

David Callisch, marketing director for Celona, points out that this technology puts 5G ahead of Wi-Fi in terms of network congestion. "Cellular uses a centralized network access methodology, OFDMA [orthogonal frequency division multiple access], that schedules when, where, and how every device can access and use the network," he says. "Even with Wi-Fi 6, client devices will still have to contend for network access, fighting other users and interference sources for access to the medium."

Benefits and Limitations of a Private 5G LAN
Enterprises that decide to move to a 5G LAN can do so gradually, or in phases. They may end up using both types of networks side by side. David Mor, co-founder and CEO of OneLayer, says, "Private 5G LAN lives in parallel to Wi-Fi-based networks and serves different needs. Private 5G provides better coverage and more reliable connection recovery that ensures critical environment communication stability."

Callisch says that cellular connectivity will not directly compete with Wi-Fi for things like general guest access and other types of non-essential connectivity. "However, for those vital business applications that simply can't tolerate latency, packet loss, or wild throughput swings, cellular solves many of the inherent challenges that enterprises have faced with conventional-best effort wireless technology," he says.

He notes that private 5G LANs offer "deterministic and predictable wireless performance, pervasive wireless coverage, [and] uninterrupted mobility at the highest level of security available."

Another significant benefit of 5G LANs is quality of service (QoS) flexibility. Network owners can grant applications different qualities of service, depending upon how mission-critical a given application is.

There are potential downsides to a private 5G LAN, though. Much of it has to do with device support. Enterprises may need to spend capital on new devices that support native cellular CBRS connectivity or on gateways that adapt legacy Wi-Fi or Ethernet systems. Companies will also have to factor in initial deployment costs, which are typically higher than for Wi-Fi networks. "This is true for small deployments, while for large deployments the TCO [total cost of ownership] conversation changes rapidly," noted Pablo Tomasi, principal analyst for Omdia.

Business Use Cases
Where private 5G LAN technology dramatically stands out is in its use cases, which are legion. Mor listed a plethora of markets, industries, and areas where 5G LANs can have an impact:

  • Farming (crop-spraying drones, produce-picking robots, and crop tracking)
  • Warehouses and logistics (robotics, automated forklifts, and drone deliveries)
  • Hospitals (robot-assisted nursing and remote surgery)
  • Stadiums (player analytics, crowd experiences, player-view cameras, and drones)
  • Ports and airports
  • Retail (AR-assisted fitting rooms and cashierless shopping)

"Private cellular can support multiple use cases and outperform Wi-Fi in various scenarios. It can support IoT, mission-critical communication, and ultra-low latency," says Tomasi.

Callisch emphasized that most of these business use cases are ones that require seamless mobility and reliable connectivity, like IoT robots in manufacturing floors, automated guided vehicles and inventory systems in warehouses, and logistic operations or vehicle connectivity at shipping yards or ports. "5G LANs are also essential to enable business-critical applications that don't operate reliably over conventional Wi-Fi, such as clinical voice communications and wireless-enabled IoT telemetry systems within healthcare environments," he says.

"5G LANS offer compelling benefits to manufacturers because 5G-enabled technologies are the foundation of innovative manufacturing and smart factories," says Gopal. "This includes advanced technologies where private 5G networks are essential, such as collaborative mobile robots, self-driving machines, swarm intelligence, automatic guided vehicles (AGVs), augmented reality (AR) predictive maintenance, AR/VR headsets, and digital twins."

She also points out that 5G grants manufacturers the ability to build factories without wires or cables, which are costly and time-consuming to implement and impede mobility within those facilities. "With a private 5G network, intelligent factories can implement artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and deep learning (DL) applications rapidly without disrupting the production line and supply chain," she added.

5G LANs can be adapted for existing wireless environments, too. Callisch says that CBRS is being used in educational settings "as a reliable backhaul to extend Wi-Fi hotspots, enable community broadband access, and [for] public safety applications such as video surveillance systems."

"Another killer application for 5G LANs over time is so-called 'neutral host networking' to simply extend public cellular services through a building or venue using the existing enterprise infrastructure with 5G LANs at fraction of the cost and complexity over conventional distributed antenna systems (DAS) that have proven to be problematic for most enterprises," he adds.

Security Advantages and Risks
Use cases are one thing, but like virtually all technological advancements, security concerns must always be addressed.

"With an increase in (successful) ransomware attacks, threat of nation state actors, etc., it's clear that organizations need to do more when it comes to cybersecurity, [but it's] often applied as an afterthought. Enterprises need to pay attention to security as a first point of call, during planning phases," says Hollie Hennessy, principal analyst for Omdia.

For 5G LANs, though, the security news is mostly good.

"Data security is one area where clear advantages can be seen," says Callisch. "All data is encrypted, all the time, without requiring any user intervention. Unlike Wi-Fi security, which has evolved over time — and introduces the chance of insecure misconfigurations — only the latest and best security mechanisms are built directly into 5G."

Part of the inherent security of 5G LANs comes from the way it handles user and device authentication and access control. These networks are designed to adhere to zero-trust principles, and it's useful both for individual device authentication as well as for administrative tasks such as centralizing and securing privileged access management.

One key difference between Wi-Fi networks and 5G networks is that the former authenticates users, whereas the latter authenticates devices. This difference is baked into the respective technologies and their use cases. Logging into a Wi-Fi network typically requires some version of a username and password combination (and/or additional user-identifiable information), while 5G devices rely on physical or embedded SIM cards for authentication.

Consider the way multiple people sign on to a Wi-Fi network versus the way an enterprise needs to authenticate a fleet of IoT devices. "The process [of using SIMs] is entirely seamless to the end user and far easier to manage from an administration perspective," Gopal says. "Once a device is authenticated, the infrastructure relies on individual or single sign-on application authentication mechanisms existing within the corporate enterprise."

"Remotely controlled SIM authentication and authorization credentials take the guesswork out of policy management, access control, and QoS mechanisms," says Gopal. "As a result, security and policy enforcement per device becomes more deterministic, with fewer chances for misconfiguration."

The advantages of QoS are most prominent in tandem with network slicing. Network slicing is a technique by which administrators can segment parts of a larger network and enjoy more granular control over the slice or slices they control. They can manage the flow of traffic within a slice, which may contain network access policies for additional security — as well as separate QoS policies for each slice.

5G LANs are not a security panacea, though. "While 5G includes strong security components, it also introduces a new attack surface," says Mor. He points out that existing network security solutions like firewalls and asset management tools can't secure these kinds of networks themselves. Further, and ironically, some of the benefits of 5G LANs, such as endpoint mobility, cross-network roaming, and cloud edge services, also increase that attack surface.

"Private 5G brings about its own security benefits, but it's not to say it's secure 'out of the box'," says Hennessy. "There still needs to be a layered security approach and various elements of the network secured."

Even so, she notes that some of the critical areas in which 5G is likely to find adoption, like transportation, energy, manufacturing, and healthcare, may have more security baked in. Those markets, she says, tend to already have robust regulations and standardization, and, it follows, more awareness of and attention toward potential attacks or breaches.

"Rolling out 5G technology gives organizations the opportunity to do things right," adds Hennessy. "Security can take a back seat to other priorities from cost to speed and availability, but in reality it's just as important for successful rollout of private 5G and to keep costly breaches at bay."

Counting the Cost
There are fewer barriers to deploying a 5G LAN now than there were before. "In the past, there had been two main economical barriers: the spectrum access that was only limited to carriers, and the network element that was proprietary per vendor," says Mor. "These factors limited the competition in the domain." But since the FCC removed barriers to infrastructure deployment with CBRS in 2018, he says, enterprises have been able to acquire their own bands. Meanwhile, more vendors have been able to enter the market, partially because of software-defined solutions from the likes of AWS.

The costs, says Callisch, have become less of a factor as well. "The pricing model for 5G LANs mirrors the wireless LAN (Wi-Fi) market and rivals (or is often lower than) the price of conventional enterprise wireless LANs," he says. "5G LANs are sold as a turnkey system within a single software SaaS subscription model through traditional IT solution partners with all requisite hardware included."

Costs are still important to factor in, though. Tomasi says that per an Omdia survey from 2021, cost is still a key obstacle for enterprises looking to deploy a private 5G LAN. "A consequence of this has been the tendency of the market to go towards managed services and pay-as-you-grow models," he says.

Taking Steps Toward Deployment
As Gopal points out, there are many parts and pieces to building out a private 5G LAN, including:

  • Purchasing spectrum from the government, mobile network operators (MNOs), or third-party spectrum providers
  • Obtaining 5G equipment such as base stations, mini towers, and small cells from network infrastructure providers
  • Connecting all the equipment to edge devices
  • Ensuring that all devices can operate within the network's wireless spectrum
  • Ensuring deep integration of all the equipment, devices, and applications

"This will emphasize the role of partners and systems integrators," says Gopal. "Enterprises should look for those that have rich experience in 5G networks and technologies to make it easier to build a dedicated private 5G network, but they should be wary of vendor lock-in."

Callisch says that expertise doesn't have to be a deal-breaker for enterprises looking to deploy a private 5G LAN, though. "One of the most compelling aspects of 5G LANs is that they do not require any specific cellular expertise, install in hours not days, and are deployed in the same, familiar manner that traditional wireless LANs are installed," he says. Instead, the challenge is more about fitting new tech into existing networks and QoS frameworks.

In that regard, Tomasi advises bringing in help when needed. "While some enterprises want to manage the private cellular network themselves, and while some of them will continue to do so, the truth is that for many of them it is more practical to use a third-party provider to manage the network, allowing the enterprise's team to focus on its core business," he says.

Open for Business
So when is the best time for enterprises to dive into the world of private 5G LANs? "If the business is being negatively impacted due to unpredictable wireless connectivity or the performance of critical applications that impede or stymie productivity, enterprises should act now," says Callisch.

Fortunately, these are not uncharted waters. Callisch points out that the various necessary infrastructure components for private 5G LANs — such as available unlicensed spectrum, spectrum access systems, device support, and 4G/5G products — are currently available, both in pilot and production environments.

"Between 5,000-7,000 networks have already been deployed," says Mor. "We are at the point where the technology is robust enough and now the security has caught up, making 5G LAN more realistic for a wider range of companies."