Like previous generations of wireless technology that had their honeymoon phases, 5G networking was introduced with a good appreciation of the various potential components. Verizon, AT&T and their contemporaries are making early 5G pitches to their large consumer bases. But another 5G story is also fading into the background.
A growing list of vendors and potential business customers are considering how private 5G networks could transform organizational wireless connectivity in the coming years. Let’s explore the high-level whys and hows of private 5G network architecture.
Define your 5G requirements
5G networking is being marketed heavily as a transformative technology for both public and private spaces. 5G follows 4G LTE and should offer significant performance improvements in comparison. The promise of 5G sounds great, but the realization of the benefits on a large scale is neither exact nor consistent. Understanding the tradeoffs required to get there is important to anyone interested in implementing a private 5G network architecture.
Small cells, and often lots of them, can complicate the potential in-house deployment of private 5G. At the same time, the control and power of a private 5G network can be compelling.
But why invest in private 5G networking? The technology is expensive, and it probably won’t completely replace Wi-Fi or LAN for most environments. Therefore, it can be another system for the budget to accommodate.
Wi-Fi and private 5G compatibility
As with Wi-Fi, company needs are driving 5G network design. But, before businesses can move on to the design phase of Wi-Fi or 5G, they need to understand what they want from the network. Wi-Fi and private 5G have similar characteristics:
- Requirements drive design. If a business does not know what the network needs to do for the business in detail, then it is almost impossible to get the right design.
- Design skills are important. In-house network design is possible but only if those entrusted with the task have special training. Otherwise, it is best to leave it to a third party that specializes in system design for the specific technology.
- Integration is integral. Wi-Fi and private 5G are only part of the overall network picture and require thoughtful integration of LAN and potentially WAN environments to be successful.
- Don’t forget the wires. Wi-Fi and private 5G have their own cabling and routing to consider.
Differences in Wi-Fi and private 5G
Wi-Fi has been around for over 20 years. It is well established in almost every corner of the business network environment. In comparison, private 5G, and even private LTE, are relatively new. The main differences between Wi-Fi and private 5G include the following:
- Device density. Wi-Fi-compatible devices are everywhere, but not many types and models of devices can benefit from private 5G, even if it is the better service for a given application.
- Barriers to access. The private 5G paradigm is subscription-based, just like public 5G. Unlike Wi-Fi, it is difficult to allow anyone on a private 5G network. Users must have a capable device and register for access.
- Cells and coverage. Businesses should be able to overlay more land with private 5G cells compared to Wi-Fi when it comes to simple coverage. However, if the blazing speeds promised by private 5G are desired, then cell sizes must be carefully managed.
Private 5G deployment considerations
Once you define the Why for private 5G, the how became important. Most environments require outside help to get it right. As with any network design — and especially for wireless networks — different network sites may have different requirements. While private networks can boil down to simple line diagrams, they can be complex depending on a number of factors.
Small cell hardware, such as gNodeB devices and remote radio heads and their associated interconnect cables — become the access edge of the 5G private network. These devices require a strong upstream connection to the LAN and possibly from the internet as well. Clients obviously access the network as 5G radio devices, but what continues to stream may rely on fiber, copper, microwave links, satellite or any combination of all.
To support the strongest 5G networks, upstream connectivity must be scaled accordingly — typically measured in the tens of gigabits for interfaces. The entire paradigm should dovetail with your existing network. As a result, switching, routing, security and core services, such as Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol and DNS, tailored to each organization all come into play.
Private 5G is part of a company’s network, while carrier versions of 5G rely on their own core services. Hybrid topologies combine private and public 5G for flexibility — and complexity.
Public 5G networks should overlap with 4G for many years. Mass-scale 5G cannot be rolled out easily because of the size and diversity of coverage areas that need to be accounted for. In contrast, private 5G networks may see faster rollout rates if their ROI models strengthen and more businesses buy.
Remember, this is not a one-size-fits-all paradigm, and there are countless permutations of the constructions of private 5G networks depending on what purpose they serve and what frequencies are at play.
How to build a private 5G network
Regardless of the particular size and setting of a new private 5G network, the following steps are required:
- Define the requirements and scope of use for the network.
- Identify client devices that must meet requirements.
- Find private 5G services. Any request for proposal is likely to get responses from leading system providers and other vendors specializing in complete private 5G services.
- Network design, which may come before or after the vendor selection process, but is an important milestone in system construction.
- Building the physical layer.
- Execute system turnup.
- Integrate the private 5G network with the rest of the network.
- Do testing and tuning.
Although most private 5G deployments still require a lot of outside help, more and more Wi-Fi professionals are becoming “wireless generalists” and becoming proficient in private 5G and other technologies, such as of Long Range WAN, as the overall wireless landscape evolves. .
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to provide more comprehensive information on building a private 5G network and to explore the similarities and differences between Wi-Fi and private 5G.
Lee Badman is a network architect specializing in wireless and cloud technologies for a large private university. He is also an author and frequent presenter at industry events.