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Unleashing 5G private networks

The technological advances of 5G have increased the speed of mobile and number of permissible connections, as well as improved network latency, capacity, and reliability.


The technological advances of 5G have increased the speed of mobile and number of permissible connections, as well as improved network latency, capacity, and reliability.


The technological advances of 5G have increased the speed of mobile and number of permissible connections, as well as improved network latency, capacity, and reliability. These advances have benefited business across the spectrum, from broadcasters to automotive, miners to manufacturers, to offer richer customer experience, improved productivity, lower waste and higher product quality. 5G is not just an incremental improvement but a hinge on which new business models can be built, as 4G was for the on-demand streaming revolution. As governments pick up the pace in providing regulatory and license support, companies need to move quickly to stay ahead of their competitors.

But 5G uptake is held back. In some areas, this is due to regulatory constraints or the slow build-out of 5G networks by operators, which leaves businesses in those lagging geographies at a disadvantage. Yet even where 5G is available, many businesses are worried about the security risks that come with deepening connectivity. As more assets and operational processes are connected, security and reliability risks compound, allowing more attack vectors as well as multiplying the impacts of any connectivity failures.

To counter these security concerns, and deliver several other significant advantages, 5G can be deployed in private networks. These are 5G cellular systems deployed in a closed environment for the sole use of entities, whether individual companies or networks of organizations with similar, synergistic needs. Private networks let a company install its own customised 5G system, allowing it to move quickly and gain an edge on competitors.

A private network is isolated, which means it provides robust security, better network availability and more control over services and capabilities. This is especially valuable given 5G is often used in mission-critical domains, including factory-floor automation, remote asset control and real-time situational awareness such as emergency services. Companies with high security requirements, like power plants, will benefit from the robust defences that come with isolation from the broader telecoms network.

Although private networks are not new—they existed in the 4G LTE era—they required dedicated hardware, equipment, physical space, power supplies, transmission infrastructure, and access to frequency. As a result, private networks were expensive and needed dedicated maintenance teams. Only a few industries like mining, emergency services and defence saw the benefits outweigh the costs.

Now, network slicing, virtualisation and NR (New Radio) that allows operators to customise networks through a Network-as-a-Service approach, rather than building each one separately, means more companies can access private networks. Enterprises can buy private 5G network services at a more affordable cost, as it no longer requires full network deployment and management. It also gives operators new revenue opportunities. “Enterprises can buy different types of private 5G network services at economical costs without considering network deployment, operation, and spectrum management,” says Tu Jiashun, Technical Spokesperson and Principal Scientist of NFV/SDN, ZTE.

“A factory can purchase a private 5G network with low latency and high reliability for robotics, completely isolated from the Internet to bring greater security,” Manufacturers can do more with the vast amounts of data now produced on the factory-floor in the era of smart production and intelligent products. “Similarly, a news or media company can subscribe to high-bandwidth private 5G network for a live broadcast using a 4K/8K drone without being disturbed by surrounding smartphones on the network,” he adds.


The next generation of private networks

Private 5G networks will open up new business-to-business (B2B) markets for operators. According to ZTE, 5G enterprise services will be a key driver for market growth and operator service revenues will grow by 7.9% CAGR by 2026 from additional use cases. To deliver on its promise, private networks need to be accessible for companies across the spectrum.

ZTE is helping make this a reality through its platform NodeEngine, which enables a private network to be created from existing 5G base stations, giving clients a self-service portal, delivered quickly and with low capital expenditure. The platform provides a local intelligent node with vertical applications and on-demand deployment for operators and enterprise customers, accelerating the incubation of 5G applications. This allows operators to control enterprise authorisation and configuration and monitor performance. The system ensures intelligent service flow optimisation using edge artificial intelligence (AI), which adjusts parameters to ensure service requirements in terms of download/upload speed, latency and reliability. There is also no overhaul of the network, reducing the workload and time needed for engineering personnel.

The proliferation of connected network devices and legacy communications infrastructure from the 4G era both present possible vectors of attack. To improve security, NodeEngine isolates transmission between base stations, which restricts unauthorised network access. Compared with the existing 5G private network solutions, NodeEngine features hardware cost optimization, richer value-added services, the shortest local transmission path, and the fastest deployment based on existing network.

The industry’s first base-station-built-in mobile edge solution, NodeEngine only requires one card inside a base station and supports private network provision across multiple sites. The platform is also scalable, allowing operators and enterprises to modulate their private network needs and add more processing power to specific applications. For example, its low-latency video streaming service shortens end-to-end video transmission latency to less than 100 milliseconds, a decreased latency of 80%. This means businesses, such as manufacturers and freight terminals, can deploy remote-control video services and applications to improve the safety and productivity of their facilities.

“The biggest advantage of NodeEngine is that it combines the edge cloud with the private network,” says Mr Tu. “Compared to a public cloud, where the base station could be thousands of kilometres away, the edge cloud is built into the base station—within a few hundred meters of the site. This results in lower latency, guaranteed bandwidth, lower transmission risk and stronger privacy and security”. It can even replace the enterprise’s own data centre and thereby become a new revenue source, Mr Tu says. The market for private 5G infrastructure is forecast to reach US$5.7 billion in worldwide revenue by 2024, up from $945 million in 2019 according to IDC, a consultancy.


Private networks in action

The adoption of private networks, with their 5G and edge computing power, enables enterprises to employ a range of technologies and digital advances. For example, in the manufacturing sector, private networks enable the deployment of autonomous vehicles and robots, augmented and virtual reality and IoT devices, and the data these devices capture can be processed and analysed to improve enterprise requirements planning and manufacturing execution systems. The NodeEngine platform’s ability to capture, store and transmit local data provides industrial parks with multiple, flexible and on-demand offloading strategies. 

In March 2021, ZTE, Xinfengming Group and China Mobile jointly deployed an all-round 5G digital solution in a smart factory in Zhejiang Province. This facility includes 5G inspection robots with AI-based 8K machine vision, unmanned 5G automated guided vehicles, and panoramic high-definition video surveillance. The 5G private network, together with the NodeEngine cloud, reduced end-to-end transmission latency to 10 milliseconds, 20% faster than alternative solutions, and offered real-time performance monitoring. The system also improved quality inspection, providing yield above 98% and cutting processes that once took 14 man-days to just three days, equating to savings of around US$3 million.

“The NodeEngine solution is simple to deploy, quick to commission and excellent in performance and cost effectiveness”, said a Xinfengming executive.

Mine operators are expected to be another customer for private 5G networks. Using robots and autonomous vehicles can make working conditions safer for miners, and allow them to explore more complex geological structures and identify new resources. At a coal mine in Shandong, China, ZTE worked with the mine’s operator to introduce wireless and remote inspection via real-time video streaming in order to improve to improve safety.


Private and powerful

The 5G revolution is already here, but companies have understandable reasons to tread carefully as they balance innovation with the need for security and control. Private networks are a perfect balance that offer access to next generation connectivity without compromising on control. And they allow operators to play a far greater role in the new connectivity chapter. “Operators can open up the “blue ocean” B2B markets to sell 5G private network services together with edge cloud services to vertical industries,” says Mr Tu.

The power of private networks

Lower latency

In a Zhejiang smart factory, a 5G private network, together with the NodeEngine cloud, reduced end-to-end transmission latency to 10 milliseconds—20% faster than alternative solutions.
Real-time monitoring

Xinfengming Group, the business operating the smart factory, can monitor the facility’s performance in real time, allowing them to react quickly to any issues.
Cost saving

The private network and NodeEngine cut some processes from 14 days to three days—resulting in savings of around US$3 million.

How 5G secures a digital future

Addressing the speed and scale of digital change is one of the most pressing issues for global decision makers. 5G offers a more secure, more connected future, but this requires all stakeholders to work together to build a transparent, open and equitable environment.



This article was produced by (E) BrandConnect, a commercial division of The Economist Group, which operates separately from the editorial staffs of The Economist and The Economist Intelligence Unit. Neither (E) BrandConnect nor its affiliates accept any responsibility or liability for reliance by any party on this content.