SCF launches blueprint for profitable roll-out of private LTE networks

The defining objective of Small Cell Forum is to accelerate adoption of dense networks, so that cellular technologies can deliver their maximum social and economic impact. We have always been interested in how private network models can complement those of the mainstream operators, expanding the total amount of investment and deployment by addressing specific enterprises’ needs.

Last year, private networks – often combined with work on edge computing, distributed cores and neutral host – moved to the heart of the SCF work programme, and that will result in a string of outputs during 2020. The first of these is a foundational report entitled ‘Private cellular networks with small cells’, published this week, and providing deployers and vendors with a clear analysis of the deployment landscape and the opportunities in this space.

This is timely, with the mobile industry on the cusp of a major wave of deployment of 4G and 5G to support industrial digitalization programmes. The move to digital platforms is an important part of government roadmaps in many countries, and has been impacting spectrum policy – for instance, new rules on shared access to licensed bands, for enterprises and their service providers, in the UK, France, USA and elsewhere; specific industrial spectrum allocated in Germany, Japan and The Netherlands.

These changes will support more diverse operating models in the 2020s. To make it commercially viable to roll out 4G and 5G base stations in their hundreds of thousands, deployment needs to be simple, affordable, and within reach of many types of organization. Mobile operators will always be the mainstay of public, nationwide networks, but they cannot profitably fill every single coverage or capacity hole, or optimize their platforms for the different requirements of every single enterprise.

That requires a more complex approach, in which some specialized enterprise, city or rural requirements are met by private networks. These can run in private, shared or MNO-owned spectrum, and they can be deployed and run by the enterprise itself, by an integrator or neutral host, or by the private networks division of a large operator. What they all have in common is that they can tailor small cell networks to the specific needs of a particular organization, which in turn, increases the total investment in 4G/5G roll-out, and accelerates full availability, even in difficult areas like deep indoors.

This is a complex subject. Many types of organization may become involved in cellular deployment, some of them with limited experience of it. And with greater diversity of deployers, so there will be greater variety in how networks are being monetized.

A survey of over 70 traditional and new small cell operators, conducted by SCF in late 2019, shows how several different models will be important to expand deployment.

The main ones that emerged were:

  • Private network deployed by the MNO, but separate from its main network
  • Network deployed by a third party but managed by the enterprise
  • Network deployed by third party and managed by them on-premise
  • Network deployed by third party and managed remotely from the cloud

Initially, the majority of private networks have been deployed by an MNO, but by 2025, the dominant model will be the cloud-managed one.

Figure 1. Deployments of small cells in private networks by operator type

SCF’s series of documents and blueprints aims to provide all the stakeholders in this rich chain with clear guidelines and roadmaps for building a business case around private networks.

For operators, new and old, private networks can bring new customers and services to the table; for enterprises, they provide connectivity that is exactly tailored to the needs of the business; and for vendors, new opportunities can be unlocked to secure a stronger presence in vertical markets.

The industry does not need to wait for 5G to reap these benefits. Although 5G will add further capabilities, the core enterprise connectivity requirements, especially indoors, can be supported by 4G today. This is a clear message from ‘Private cellular networks with small cells’, which sets out the key opportunities, challenges and recommendations in the market, for 4G or 5G.

This paper will be followed, during the rest of 2020, by three further documents, each of which will explore an aspect of private small cell networks in greater depth. These three topics will be:

  • Management of private cellular networks
  • How 5G will impact private networks
  • The requirements for private cellular networks in selected key verticals (such as transportation)

This set of documents will form the core of SCF’s work on private cellular, and they will also be accompanied by a range of complementary activities such as drawing up deployment and management guidelines, and reach-out to enterprise stakeholders.

All the conclusions and recommendations are distilled from a large number of member inputs and experiences, and the foundation document was authored by a group of members with deep expertise in various commercial and technology aspects. It sets out the main deployment models and business models for private small cell networks, including enterprise-managed and outsourced systems, as well as the range of service providers, from MNOs to neutral hosts.

There are also detailed analyses of spectrum and roaming requirements, and of the impact of integrating distributed packet cores and edge computing into the platform. And the document concludes with a clear and detailed set of recommendations – for enterprise IT departments, MNOs, other operators, and regulators – which would facilitate the deployment of private networks and open up many verticals to their benefits.

Such valuable resources will give deployers greater confidence to proceed quickly, armed with clear guidelines built on collective experience round the world. And that, in turn, will help achieve the significant growth in small cell roll-outs, which SCF expects to see driven by private networks in the first half of the 2020s (see figure below for our latest forecast).

Figure 2. Deployment of small cells in private networks – 4G or 5G

To find out more, please visit the Private Networks page.