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Are private wireless networks worth the investment?

Private wireless networks enable more control over networks, but they aren't right for every organization. Here's what to evaluate for a private wireless network deployment.

When organizations want to implement wireless networks, they typically go through public carriers. This option is suitable for organizations that want reliable connectivity, but enterprises that want more control over their infrastructures might want to own and manage their own networks.

That's what private wireless networking, a fairly new form of network deployment, can bring. Private wireless networking only recently became a reality for U.S.-based enterprises when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began to hold auctions for spectrum that enables private wireless.

One game changer for private wireless networking deployment is Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) because it opens shared wireless spectrum to the general public, according to Rikin Thakker, CTO of Wireless Infrastructure Association. Private wireless networks didn't exist until a few years ago when CBRS became available to the public, he said. By 2026, though, the private wireless market will reach somewhere between $800 million and $1 billion, according to Dell'Oro Group.

Private wireless networking is a big investment that isn't right for every organization, due to initial costs and deployment requirements. But these investments might be worth it to organizations that want more control, visibility and security over their network environments.

Private wireless network vs. public carrier wireless

Public carrier wireless networks and private wireless networks differ in who builds and owns the network. Carriers own public wireless networks, as well as the resources used to operate them. The carriers manage the network, from general management to security, and offer the use of that network to customers. Because carriers own the resources, they can reallocate customer bandwidth, which sometimes reduces performance.

Organizations that don't want to buy from public carriers can build, own and operate their own private wireless networks. This option increases the security and control organizations have over the network because they manage it. They create their own rules for who accesses the network, which increases security.

What do you need to build a private wireless network?

Private wireless networks provide the same wireless broadband connectivity as public wireless networks and require the same components:

  • licensed or unlicensed spectrum;
  • a network core;
  • a base station;
  • radios and antennas; and
  • a form of connectivity to enable the network, like LTE or 5G.

Organizations can use 4G LTE network connectivity, but as private 5G deployments advance, organizations might prefer to use private 5G as their choice of cellular connectivity. Updates to the 5G New Radio standard give way to standalone (SA) 5G networks that support several 5G benefits, such as faster speeds and ultrareliable low latency. SA 5G networks also support the use of unlicensed spectrum, such as the General Authorized Access tier of CBRS, which users can access for free.

Organizations can either buy spectrum from FCC auctions or borrow spectrum from owners. Spectrum sharing isn't the only type of partnership regarding private wireless networks. Most networking professionals aren't equipped with the skills to manage a private wireless network, so organizations typically reach out to third parties or systems integrators to design and manage their private wireless networks, Thakker said.

Private wireless networks aren't for every organization

Not every organization will benefit from a private wireless network deployment. For one, organizations must pay for the initial investment of the network, which is usually a hefty expenditure. This price varies from organization to organization, depending on size, use cases and network goals.

Additionally, Thakker said some organizations might prefer to deploy services from a carrier rather than build a network themselves because of the additional maintenance that private wireless networks require. Service providers can upgrade public wireless networks for customers, but organizations that build their own private wireless networks must update their networks themselves.

"If you go with the carrier-based networks, you don't have to worry about network evolution because they'll take care of it," Thakker said. "With a private network, you have to keep an eye on that. You have to plan for those additional expenses in the future because it's your own network."

But these drawbacks shouldn't discourage organizations from building their own private wireless networks. Despite the initial investment, private wireless networks save organizations more money down the line, Thakker said.

"Since it's a private network, you have visibility of the cost of your network, how many subscribers you have and what kind of resources you provide to them. There's a way for you to control the costs and manage it more efficiently," he said.

Decide if a private wireless network is worth the investment

One of the most important details factored into the decision to build a private wireless network is how much organizations want to invest in the deployment. The most obvious investment is the initial monetary cost of the network. But private wireless networks should be future-proof systems, and organizations must continue to invest in the maintenance of the network long after deployment.

Some organizations might want to take on these extra responsibilities in exchange for better performance, increased security, higher visibility and more control over their networks. Other organizations prefer to purchase services from a carrier. Carrier wireless services aren't inferior to private wireless networks, but enterprise buyers lack control over the infrastructure.

Experts predict private wireless networks are too big of an opportunity for most enterprises to ignore, so organizations currently with carrier wireless services could pivot to a private wireless network at some point in their business's lifecycle.

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