OK, I’ve come around on the notion of private 5G.
Last year, I blogged about private 5G and explained how you’d know you were a prospect for the technology as an alternative to WiFi or public cellular services. My focus was on the same community of workers that most tech empowerment has focused on, meaning the white-collar or “carpet” types. Since the first of the year, I’ve had a chance to chat with 31 companies who are using or deploying private wireless technology, and I’ve also chatted with some of their integrators and suppliers. None of the enterprises were using private 5G in the hallowed (carpeted) halls of an office. Instead, their targeted jobs were outside in the dirt—sometimes literally—or on some factory or warehouse floor.
My new insight isn’t a broad license to tout private 5G to the skies, or to rush out to grab your share. It turns out that of the roughly 1,200 private wireless buyers I can identify, almost all are in just six verticals. They are agriculture, energy, healthcare, industrial and manufacturing, transportation, and warehousing.
The applications in these verticals vary, but one common thread is that they’re far more about sensors than they are about smartphones. Another common thread is that they’re more often driven by integrators than by vendors, and those two points are critical for companies considering or promoting private 5G. Finally, all these companies considered Wi-Fi (including Wi-Fi 6) and cellular services, and rejected both of them.
When is 5G better fit than Wi-Fi
IoT, meaning sensors and controllers, may or may not meet the mobility requirement I set in that past blog, but they do have something that’s almost equivalent, which is distributability. In all but one of the verticals, you’re likely to find a large physical space populated by a bunch of devices. The devices may measure or detect things, control things, and in short are fundamental to the operation of the facility. There may be dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of them, and they have to operate out in the open, in all sorts of weather, with minimal care.
Distributability is the reason the value proposition for these verticals is broader than the one that drives office-worker empowerment. Generally, business technology is justified by productivity gains, and so it focuses on jobs with the highest unit value of labor. We see that in all our private 5G verticals, especially in energy and healthcare, but we also see opportunities to target masses of lower-labor-value workers. In an agricultural irrigation system that involves 10,000 valves and a larger number of sensors, 5G can save the time it would take a laborer to check and change each one, and that adds up to a big savings providing that costs can be managed.
Those remote devices, unlike smartphones, aren’t in the possession of people who can keep them charged up, and you can’t have people running around to change batteries. Thus, power consumption is really important. Wi-Fi is a power hog compared to 5G, and that alone can be a big problem for remote sensors and controllers. There’s also a range problem in most missions; Wi-Fi isn’t good for much more than a couple hundred feet, and in most of the applications these companies reported, there was no point from which all their devices could be reached using Wi-Fi. One user told me that they needed a mile range.
Why not public 5G, you might wonder? Well, think of a thousand little devices, each with their own cellular data plan. Forget a car, the operators would send an airplane for you if you had that kind of deal on the table, but nobody is going to spend that much on an IoT application. Private 5G could save (forgive the mixed metaphor) a boatload of cash, and in many cases a single private tower or two will cover a major facility.
The needs of applications lead to 5G
How did the 31 companies I spoke to get into private 5G? All of them said that they knew the capability existed, but that they were launched on their private 5G initiative by an integrator who was looking at a facility-control challenge for the buyer. In other words, their consideration really started at the application level, and private 5G was suggested as the best communications tool for the job. I’m told by private 5G product/service sources that this is the most common way to start a private 5G project, though some (usually large) buyers do go directly to a 5G resource.
Who actually provides the elements of the private 5G network? Again, the majority of buyers I talked with said that their integrator was their contact for the 5G components and tools needed. Only one of the 31 said that they provided input to the integrator on the approach they preferred; the rest did what the integrator suggested. Interestingly, the integrators involved said that while they had a preferred supplier, they were open to other suppliers if prospective buyers had strong views. In most cases (roughly 60%) the integrator suggested a vendor who provided all the technology, and for the rest, the integrator recommended a radio strategy and a 5G software and hosting strategy. Public-cloud provider private-5G resources were used by only six of the 31, but all of the buyers who used the public cloud in their 5G deployment did use the special private-5G features offered.
Integrators are key in choosing private 5G.
The private 5G providers I talked with recognized the importance of integrators and developers in promoting the applications behind private 5G deployment. They all said that APIs were “very important”, industry-specific knowledge and contacts were “critical”, and referral programs and certification/qualification were “very important”. The integrators all listed a good developer/integrator program and effective lead generation and channel conflict management as their top requirements, closely followed by name recognition of the 5G provider.
As useful as the views of private 5G adopters were, they didn’t answer all the questions in the space. One question was the business case, and just what that meant. All 31 of these private 5G adopters said the decision to use private 5G was “a given” because of cost, but that didn’t mean the project itself was easily justified. In fact, nine companies who had considered private 5G and not adopted it said that their problem wasn’t with private 5G but with project benefits overall. Said one company, “We had 1,900 devices to connect, and there was never a question that private 5G would be the best way to connect them. The question was whether having those devices connected and having an application to use them would pay back. We’re still not sure.”
Another question was whether greater acceptance of private 5G would stimulate other firms to consider it, and the answer is another of those annoying “Yes, buts…”. Integrators said that a win for them in a given industry always generated other prospects in the same industry, but none mentioned that success in one vertical generated opportunities in others. That may be because integrators tend to focus on one vertical, and a horizontal market for elements of private 5G, one that crosses industries, is yet to develop. That, in turn, is because office automation is the most compelling cross-industry function, and 5G has little value so far in that area.
Here’s how 5G use might expand.
But there could be. So far, private 5G is justified by some highly credible, vertical-focused, applications. That first private 5G application is the hardest to justify because its benefits have to cover the high cost of initial deployment and overcome executive uncertainty about becoming their own 5G provider. In theory, every other mission should be easier. That to me means that somehow those vertical-focused integrators have to step back and find other valuable private 5G applications, and not just to maximize their own 5G benefits. A second mission for a private 5G network already deployed and justified should be the lowest apple of all, and if that second mission were targeting “carpet” workers, it could be spread by referral beyond those six verticals. Maybe adding it to a marginal business case for non-carpet workers in other verticals would tip the scales and justify private 5G in those other markets.
However it’s done, to be really successful private 5G needs to escape the vertical application that first justified it and if possible the six current verticals. Ever hear of a one-trick pony? Nothing positive is ever said about one, so everyone with an interest in private 5G needs to ponder that analogy.
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