If monetizing 5G networks is a marathon, we are in mile two 

By Dr. Lori Dawson, Senior Director of Service Engineering, UScellular 

Note: This blog was produced under WIA’s Innovation and Technology Council (ITC). The ITC is the forum for forecasting the future of the wireless industry. Participants explore developments in the wider wireless industry, from 5G network monetization trends and streamlining infrastructure deployment to future spectrum needs and cell site power issues. The group is publishing a series of thought-leadership pieces throughout 2024.

We are very early in the lifecycle of private cellular networking (PCN). Just a couple of years ago, it was a concept. Now, we have some networks in place and operational. There’s so much opportunity as private cellular networks become more mainstream and more understood. 

A lot of the conversations happening today are still focused on educating the marketplace about how private wireless networks can help solve business problems. CEOs and IT departments have heard private wireless networks might be able to help them streamline processes and save costs, so they are coming to us to learn more about the possibilities. IT professionals may be evaluating new computers on Monday, vetting new factory machines on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, they are looking at wireless network technology. Their only previous experience with wireless networks might have been with a Wi-Fi network or their own personal cell phone.  

There is a lot of fact-finding happening today.  

At UScellular, we are seeing interest in the private cellular network opportunity in two specific verticals: utilities and manufacturing.  

Utilities have a fundamental interest in having control and security – cyber security and physical security – and that drives a strong interest in having a private cellular network that they own and control. They don’t want to use the public cloud if they don’t have to, but there is a major learning curve to get to the point where they can deploy a private network because there are a lot of nuances in running a cellular network, whether it is public or private. 

These companies are highly skilled at running a power grid or natural gas grid, but they do not have the knowledge or experience to run a wireless network, particularly designing, implementing, and operating one. They are seeking assistance from wireless carriers and infrastructure providers to help them stand up their private cellular networks. Deploying a private 5G network is a little like going from 0 to 100 miles per hour, and they are looking for someone to help them take smaller steps to get to their ultimate goal. 

Our relationship with utilities is twofold. First, they need help deploying the network. Many utilities have plans to build 10 cell sites or 50 cell sites, but anyone who’s built a cell site knows it doesn’t occur very quickly. So, they are looking for ways of using our existing cell sites and leveraging our core network and network knowledge to assist them in dipping their toes into the private cellular network waters.  

Secondly, they need assistance operating the network, including managing equipment lifecycles and upgrades. Utilities are accustomed to installing a meter and having it work for years, whereas wireless networks need continuous care, network performance monitoring, network lifecycle upgrades, device issue troubleshooting, policy setup, SIM management, and other things they might not have encountered in other networks. 

In many cases, utilities already have some network components in place and may need help filling in the gaps. They may have a core, but not a RAN. They may have some sites but need help implementing a core. Utilities also can put radios on our towers or, more commonly, roam onto our network, which is an advantage of working with a mobile operator to deploy a private 5G network. 

With Industry 4.0, manufacturing companies are looking for ways to streamline their cost structures.  They are looking for more automation in transporting goods throughout their facilities and understanding the efficiency and effectiveness of their manufacturing lines. Private cellular networks can give them the data they need to streamline their manufacturing processes.  In many cases this looks like increased automation and robots.  Although private wireless would benefit manufacturers of all sizes, we are seeing more demand from large manufacturers that have technology departments and resources in place and are already asking questions about how technology can solve the challenges in front of them.   

One of the benefits 5G can provide to manufacturers is the low latency needed to operate certain machines. It also can give them the ability to move equipment that otherwise would be connected to fiber not just on the factory floor or within a facility, but also outside the building. If they are shuffling equipment between buildings or need to transfer from a private network to a public wireless network, they have the flexibility to do that.  This allows companies to track and coordinate material delivery and movement between plants. 

Manufacturers are particularly interested in highly flexible indoor networks where they can move sensors and antennas around to achieve optimal performance. Often manufacturers have production schedules that are set months or years in advance, as well as specific budget timelines, which makes flexibility in any networking solution extremely valuable.  Lastly, unless there is a greenfield opportunity, many PCN deployments augment the existing in-building solution, which often includes Wi-Fi.   

These are just two opportunities to monetize 5G. As an industry, there has been much discussion about the investment that has been made in 5G networks.  We may only be at mile two of the private cellular network marathon but UScellular is in it for the entire marathon and looks forward to the opportunity to partner in delivering these solutions.