As the global roll-out of 5G services gains momentum, several innovative use cases for the technology are beginning to emerge. With its potential to offer up to 100 times faster speed than 4G and ultra-reliable low latency communications, 5G is becoming a key enabler for internet of things (IoT) and machine-to-machine communications, which are finding applications across enterprises. 5G networks are also playing a key role in the digitalisation and automation of critical national infrastructure such as energy and transport.
A promising application of 5G technology is private networks, which provide enterprises with dedicated high speed wireless communication. By granting exclusive access to authorised individuals and devices, private networks allow companies complete control over network accessibility. This capability ensures that only individuals within their office premises have network access. Moreover, by deploying private networks, companies can guarantee faster speeds, superior coverage and low latency connectivity for their employees since data traffic is not shared with other cellular networks. Further, private networks provide greater security compared to Wi-Fi and other network topologies. Moreover, enterprises gain benefits such as enhanced scalability and flexibility with 5G private networks, as these networks can be tailored to meet specific business requirements. In addition, private networks enable enterprises to optimise their operations through the integration of automation, robotics and IoT integration, resulting in increased efficiency and productivity.
Due to these advantages, several enterprises globally have started deploying private 5G networks tailored to their specific networking requirements. For instance, manufacturing companies are building 5G networks to optimise connectivity for their industrial control equipment across factories and industrial processes. In the healthcare sector, large hospitals are establishing their own 5G networks to ensure seamless telemedicine operations. The oil and gas sector is also adopting private 5G networks, especially for facilities located beyond the coverage of commercial networks. In the logistics industry, companies are leveraging captive 5G networks to enhance the tracking, monitoring and sorting of packages and shipments. Similarly, educational campuses are progressively opting for private 5G networks over Wi-Fi due to coverage-related issues and complex maintenance requirements associated with the latter.
Despite their promising potential, the adoption of captive 5G networks is hindered by regulatory and policy uncertainties in certain markets. To establish a private 5G network, enterprises must first acquire spectrum from the government, telecom operators, or third-party providers. Additionally, they need to procure 5G equipment such as base stations, mini-towers and small cells from network infrastructure providers. While countries such as Germany, Finland, the UK, Brazil, Australia, Hong Kong and Japan have already allocated spectrum for private networks, other major markets are still exploring ways to facilitate the establishment of captive 5G networks.
Policy flux in India
The policy and regulatory landscape surrounding private 5G networks in India has undergone several changes over the past year. During the 5G auction held in 2022, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recommended reserving a 40 MHz spectrum block in the 3700-3800 MHz band for private networks. In addition, TRAI proposed reserving a minimum of 40 MHz in the 4800-4990 MHz band (mid-band) and a minimum of 400 MHz in the 28.5-29.5 GHz or millimetre wave band for private networks. However, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) rejected the regulator’s recommendations, arguing that reserving 5G spectrum in the mid-band, which was auctioned in the 2022 spectrum sale, would result in significant revenue loss for the government. DoT further contended that any company looking to establish a private 5G network must pay the market-determined price for the associated spectrum.
Meanwhile, in June 2022, DoT issued guidelines to facilitate spectrum leasing, allowing telecom service providers (TSPs) to lease spectrum to companies for establishing captive private networks. These guidelines enabled private companies to acquire international mobile telecommunications spectrum from one or more TSPs holding access service licences, subject to mutually agreed terms and conditions. Further, the guidelines provided enterprises establishing private captive networks the option to directly obtain spectrum from DoT. The guidelines also stated that DoT will conduct demand studies and seek recommendations from the regulator for the direct allocation of spectrum to these enterprises. Moreover, the guidelines permitted telecom operators to offer captive networks as a service to enterprises through network slicing over their public networks.
Following the release of these guidelines, DoT conducted an assessment to evaluate the demand for spectrum dedicated to captive private networks. It received 20 applications from companies such as Infosys, Capgemini, GMR, Larsen & Toubro Limited, Tata Communications Limited, Tata Power Company Limited and Tejas Networks Limited for the direct allocation of spectrum resources. The majority of applications received by DoT were for setting up private networks in the mid-band, followed by the 28.5-29.5 GHz band.
However, it has been reported that DoT has now decided against administratively allocating spectrum directly to enterprises for establishing captive 5G networks. The entity is of the view that under the existing legal framework, spectrum allocation should only take place through auctions to ensure the maximum possible returns to the exchequer. Considering the current policy stance of DoT, enterprises have the option to lease 5G spectrum from telecom operators or allow the operators to deploy private networks on their behalf.
Notably, telecom operators are opposed to the idea of direct spectrum allocation, asserting that it would create an unfair advantage for technology players and enable them to offer 5G services through a policy loophole. Meanwhile, enterprises have argued in favour of direct spectrum allocation, citing its potential to drive the growth of the local telecom gear industry. This is because telecom operators typically prefer to collaborate with well-established global telecom equipment manufacturers rather than domestic ones. Enterprises have also argued that direct spectrum allocation could be the most effective approach, as it would prevent the possibility of operators forming a cartel and demanding higher rates for 5G private networks’ spectrum.
Initiatives to set up private 5G networks in India
Despite the uncertainty regarding spectrum allocation for 5G private networks, several companies in India have initiated their deployment. For instance, Apollo Hospitals has partnered with Bharti Airtel to establish a private network. Apollo Hospitals recently announced the successful implementation of an artificial intelligence-guided colonoscopy procedure, wherein real-time image processing was facilitated through their private 5G network. This marked one of the initial instances of enterprises leveraging private 5G networks in India. Furthermore, Bharti Airtel, in collaboration with Tech Mahindra, has deployed private 5G networks at Mahindra & Mahindra’s automobile manufacturing plant in Maharashtra. Vodafone Idea is also collaborating with L&T Smart World & Communication to establish a 5G private network. Meanwhile, equipment vendor Ericsson has established a new unit called Business Area Enterprise Wireless Solutions to handle private network solutions for enterprise customers in India.
Issues and challenges
Apart from regulatory and policy hurdles, the adoption of 5G private networks faces various other significant obstacles. One key challenge for enterprises looking to install 5G private networks is the high initial investment required for infrastructure set-up and network deployment. Deploying a private network requires significant upfront investment in infrastructure, equipment and spectrum licences. The cost of setting up the network infrastructure, including base stations, antennas and backhaul connectivity, can be substantially high, especially for small- and medium-sized enterprises, limiting their ability to adopt 5G private networks.
To effectively mitigate potential risks, enterprises must implement robust security measures such as encryption, authentication protocols and intrusion detection systems. They should also implement privacy regulations and frameworks to safeguard user data and ensure compliance. Facilitating effective coordination among various components within a private 5G ecosystem is another significant challenge in deploying private networks. Enterprises must ensure the compatibility of their devices with the wireless spectrum designated for the private network. They must take precautions to prevent interference between their private 5G network and nearby public 5G networks.
Private 5G networks provide various benefits to enterprises, particularly for business-critical and security-sensitive applications. These benefits include increased control and management of network operations, enhanced reliability and resiliency, near-real-time communication services and zero-latency capabilities.
Going forward, a favourable regulatory environment will play a critical role in the adoption and deployment of 5G private networks in India. The government must develop clear and favourable regulatory frameworks that effectively address issues such as spectrum allocation, licensing, data privacy and security. These regulations should create a favourable environment for private network deployment, while also ensuring fair competition and consumer protection.