For the last few years, I've written and spoken extensively about 4G or 5G cellular networks optimised for enterprises, whether that's for a factory, a port, an electricity grid - or even just a medium-sized office building. Recent trends confirm the acceleration of this model.
- CBRS in the US is growing rapidly, including for local and industrial/utility uses
- Localised 4G/5G spectrum is now available in UK, Germany, Netherlands, France, Japan and elsewhere, with many new countries examining the options
- Many campus/dedicated network strategies by traditional mobile operators (MNOs)
- Assorted testbeds and trials sponsored by governments, groups like 5G ACIA etc.
- Growing intersections with Open RAN and neutral host models
An inflection point has now been reached.
Enterprise/local cellular is happening, finally
It's been a long time coming. In fact, I've been following the broad concept of enterprise cellular since about 2001, when I first met with a small cell vendor, called ip.access. Around 2005-2009 there was a lot of excitement about local 2G/3G networks, with the UK and Netherlands releasing thin slices of suitable spectrum. A number of organisations deployed networks, although it never hit the massmarket, for various reasons.
Now, however, private 4G and 5G is becoming "real". There's a critical mass of enterprises that are seriously interested, as this intersects with ongoing trends around IoT deployment, workforce automation, smart factory / city / building / etc concepts, and the availability of localised spectrum and cloud-based elements like network cores. It's still not easy, but the ingredients are much more accessible and easier to "cook".
A binary choice of MNOs vs enterprise?
But throughout this whole story we've had an underlying narrative of a two-way choice:
- Enterprises can obtain private / on-premise cellular networks from major MNOs as a service, perhaps with dedicated coverage plus a "slice" of the main macro network and core functions.
- Enterprises can build their own cellular networks, in the same way they build Wi-Fi or wired ethernet LANs today, or operate their wider private mobile radio (PMR) system.
This is a "false binary". A fallacy that there's only two options. Black & white. Night & day.
In reality, there's a whole host of shades-of-grey - or perhaps a better analogy, multi-coloured dawns and sunsets.
Not just MNOs
There is a lengthening cast-list of other types of service provider that can build, run and sell 4G and 5G networks to enterprises or "verticals" (the quaint & rather parochial term that classical telcos use to describe the other 97% of the economy).
An incomplete list of non-traditional MNOs targeting private mobile networks includes:
- Fixed and cable operators, especially those which have traditionally had large enterprise customer bases for broadband, VPNs, PBXs / UC, managed Wi-Fi etc.
- MVNOs wanting to deploy some of their own radio infrastructure to "offload" traffic from their usual host provider in select locations.
- TowerCo's moving up the value chain into private or neutral networks (for instance, Cellnex and Digital Colony / Freshwave)
- IT services firms affiliated to specific enterprises (for example, HubOne, the IT subsidiary of the company running Paris's airports)
- Industrial automation suppliers acting as "industrial mobile operators" on behalf of customers (maybe a robot or crane supplier running/owning a local 5G network for a manufacturer or port, as an integral part of their systems)
- Utility companies running private 4G/5G and providing critical communications to other utilities and sectors (for instance Southern Linc in the US), or perhaps acting as a neutral host, such as a client in Asia that I've advised.
- Dedicated MNOs for particular industries, such as oil & gas, often in specific regions
- Municipalities and local authorities deploying networks for internal use, citizen services or as public neutral-host networks for MNOs. The Liverpool 5G testbed in the UK is a good example, while Sunderland's authority is looking at becoming an NHN.
- Railway companies either for neutral-host along tracks, or acting as FWA service providers in their own right, to nearby homes and businesses.
- Specialist IoT connectivity providers, perhaps focusing on LPWAN connectivity, such as Puloli in the US.
- FWA / WISP networks shifting to 4G/5G and targetting enterprises (eg for agricultural IoT)
- Overseas MNOs without national spectrum in a market, but which want to service multinational enterprise clients' sites and offices. Verizon is looking at private cellular in the UK, for instance - and it wouldn't surprise me if Rakuten expands its footprint outside Japan.
- Property and construction companies, especially for major regeneration districts or whole new smart-city developments.
- UC/UCaaS and related voice & communications-centric enterprise SPs, such as Tango Networks with CBRS
- Universities creating campus networks for students, or other education/research organisations servicing students, staff and visitors
- Major cloud providers creating 4G / 5G networks for a variety of use-cases and enterprise groups - Amazon and Google are both tightly involved (albeit opaquely, beyond Google's SAS business), while Microsoft's acquisition of Metaswitch points to cloud-delivered private 5G, albeit perhaps not with spectrum and RAN managed itself.
- Tourism and hospitality service providers providing connectivity solutions to hotels or resorts - although that's probably taking a backseat given economic & pandemic woes.
- Broadcasters, event-management and content-production companies deploying private networks on behalf of sports and entertainment venues, festivals
- Dozens more options - I'm aware of numerous additional categories and more will inevitably emerge in coming years. Ask me for details.
Conclusion: beyond the MNO/Enterprise binary fallacy
You get the picture. The future of 4G / 5G isn't just going to split between traditional "public mobile operators" (typically the GSMA membership) vs. individual enterprises creating DIY networks. There will be an entire new universe of SPs of many different types.
You can call them "new telcos", "Specialist Wirelss SPs", "Alternative Mobile Operators" or create assorted other categories. Many will be multi-site operators. Some may be regional or national.
We will see MNOs set up divisions that look like these new SP types, or perhaps acquire them. Some vendors will become quasi-SPs for enterprise, too. This is a hugely dynamic area, and trying to create fixed buckets and segments is a fool's errand.
Understanding this new and heterogeneous landscape is critical for enterprises, policymakers, vendors and investors - as well as traditional MNOs. I've been saying for years that "telecoms is too important to be left to the telcos", and it appears to be becoming true at a rapid pace.
Many in the mobile industry assert that 5G will transform industries. In many cases it will.... but the first industry to get transformed is the mobile industry itself.
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