The UK government’s decision to ban mobile network providers from using Huawei equipment in their networks has wide-ranging and far-reaching consequences. While undoubtedly it is important to prioritise national security, the legislation has wider implications when it comes to the UK’s position in the race to roll-out 5G.
The UK operators have until 2027 to remove all Huawei equipment from their 5G networks. Not only is this predicted to delay the UK’s rollout of 5G by at least two years, but the cost of stripping out Huawei equipment is predicted to be £2 billion.
The priority now is to find a viable alternative, through which businesses across the UK can reap the benefits of 5G in a safe way. One such alternative is homegrown private 5G networks. These networks, which are currently being tested by businesses around the country, can bring enormous benefits to a range of industries.
What is a private 5G network?
A private 5G network is a local area network that uses cellular 5G technology to create a dynamically reconfigurable network with unified connectivity, optimised for services and a secure means of communication. A private network, as opposed to a public network, allows far greater control and can be far more cost effective for a business. 5G features, such as neutral hosting and network slicing and splicing, can be applied to transform a private 5G network into a dynamically reconfigurable network able to support a wide range of applications.
Moreover, the wider adoption of Open RAN, with its vendor-neutral disaggregation of the Radio Access Network at both the hardware and software levels, allows the use of general-purpose, processor-based platforms and open interfaces that reduce considerably the dependency on a single-vendor like Huawei.
Private 5G networks can be deployed across a vast range of industries, from healthcare and manufacturing to transport and entertainment. Using technology in this way enables new business models and opportunities, streamlines operations and creates additional revenue streams. This is especially important as the nation navigates economic turbulence brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and uncertainty around Brexit.
Indeed, a Barclays’ report revealed that the implementation of 5G within our businesses could increase annual UK business revenues by up to £15.7 billion by 2025. The manufacturing industry alone will see an increase of £2 billion. Meanwhile, O2 has found that 5G will facilitate greater flexibility, lower costs and shorter lead times for factory floor production that together could take up to 40 Megatonnes of carbon out of the economy by 2035.
Unlocking the power of private 5G networks
A key advantage of deploying private 5G networks for a business is the opportunity to deploy neutral hosting models. These models enable the co-existence of several service providers over a single, shared network infrastructure. Neutral hosting is by far a more efficient way of deploying and operating a network than ever before.
Additionally, use of open networking technologies such as Open RAN and Software-Defined Networking (SDN) enable a diverse ecosystem of multivendor solutions that can be implemented on bare metal hardware as well as on virtualized or containerized platforms.
One of the most innovative benefits of private 5G networks is their slicing and splicing ability which can hugely improve the business efficiency. These technologies deliver a customised network that meets the business demands. They allow operators to create multiple virtual networks that can be customised and optimised for the specific service and traffic levels needed.
The manufacturing industry provides a great example of how this can be useful in practice. Within a factory, there will be multiple tools and machines all requiring different levels of connectivity with varied degrees of latency and throughput. Through slicing and splicing on a neutrally hosted network these machines will be provided with the correct level of connectivity to work at optimum performance. Any leftover capacity can be directed elsewhere, ultimately making the factory far more efficient. Similar scenarios can be applied to many different businesses with the same outcome.
Reaping the 5G benefits
There are a number of additional benefits to private 5G networks that enable businesses to work more efficiently, effectively and with the knowledge that their data are secure.
5G networks could have far lower latency than current cellular and wireless technologies available. This enables real-time communication between devices. If devices can speak with each other, networks can become automated which eliminates human interference and error, while also being able to respond to business needs. Private, reliable and low latency networks that can process high volumes of data without delay, will hugely improve productivity. The technology will enable digital infrastructure to help streamline operations, which will lead to an improvement in business output.
For a business to operate safely and confidently, the security of its network is of the utmost importance. Built from the ground up with security at their core, this is one of the areas that the advantages of 5G can really be seen.
Businesses will be empowered with more autonomy and control, able to set up their own policies rather than being subject to the standards of network providers. It will also enable for large quantities of data to be stored locally which remains important for data backup activities; this comes as a huge advantage as data protection regulations are being tightened. This can be hugely beneficial for highly confidential businesses or projects.
Building the use cases
The UK government is actively working to help businesses and organisations across the UK reap the benefits of 5G, in particular supporting homegrown 5G networks. One such example is the 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme, through which it explores the benefits and challenges of deploying 5G use cases in a wide range of operating environments. The investment in testbeds across the country aims to ultimately boost the productivity and growth of UK industries. 5G-ENCODE is one such testbed.
5G-ENCODE has been set up to explore the application of 5G in industrial settings. Led by Zeetta Networks, the 5G-ENCODE project will see a 5G private network built at the National Composite Centre (NCC).
The network will be used by NCC’s customers to test and trial a wide range of applications, including industrial applications of Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), asset tracking of time sensitive materials and automated industrial control through IoT monitoring and big data analytics within manufacturing. The aim of the project is to validate the premise that using private 5G networks in conjunction with new business models can deliver better efficiency, productivity, and a range of new services and opportunities that would help the UK lead the development of advanced manufacturing applications.
Homegrown to reap the benefits
While the government's decision to remove all Huawei technology from UK’s 5G networks may have temporarily jolted the 5G rollout progress, in the long-run it will reap benefits - many of which are yet to be realised. The proper utilisation of features such as neutral hosting and network slicing and splicing will enable enterprises to create networks customised to their specific needs ultimately increasing efficiency and productivity.
Private 5G networks will be revolutionary for every industry. The productivity and output benefits of 5G technology for businesses are clear, but before 5G can become the norm across industries it needs to be rigorously tested and explored. That’s why many testbed projects, including 5G-ENCODE, working to validate the premise.
Establishing a diverse ecosystem of open, multivendor solutions and appropriate business models applied on private, homegrown 5G networks will be the ultimate demonstration of the UK’s status as global leader in 5G.