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24 August 2021

NTT goes global with 5G-as-a-service

Japan’s NTT is claiming two accolades for its private enterprise cellular-as-a-service platform – that it is first both to have global reach, and the first to integrate fully with existing infrastructure including the back office. Enterprise private cellular-as-a-service then is now up and running in various countries and NTT is aiming for the first multinational customers.

There is some truth in both assertions by NTT. Most of those 4G offerings certainly were confined to specific countries or regions, and did not extend their tentacles as far into the enterprise, addressing mostly immediate connectivity, but the platform is best seen as a progression on a journey that started with the first LTE-as-a-service offering a few years ago.

The services are offered by NTT’s technology services company, not by its MNO, NTT Docomo. The two firms live in the same stable but the launch highlights how, while it is useful to have an MNO in the family, the actual enterprise platform may be best delivered by an IT- and services-focused company rather than the operator itself.

NTT has described its emerging private cellular as-a-service platform for both LTE and 5G as an “end-to-end stack of services that goes beyond the network”, embracing infrastructure and device management, and industrial application enablement, as well as back-office integration.

However, the integration capability relies on specific software and network components from third parties. Branded P5G, the platform is pre-integrated with various unnamed network and software partners, making detailed assessment elusive. It is clear though that the package does give enterprises some freedom of choice within a catalogue of proscribed suppliers for various aspects of private network deployment, including not just the technology but also acquisition of spectrum and navigation of regulatory requirements, which will differ between the various markets where NTT is pitching the platform.

Indeed, one of the selling points is that NTT will take care of such navigation in all markets, which might appeal to some multinational customers. NTT argues the platform will “eliminate friction and increase ROI” for multinational enterprises grappling with the complexities of private cellular. NTT cited the automotive, manufacturing, healthcare, and retail sectors as particular targets and touted its appointment of former Accenture and Sprint executive, as well as FCC advisor, Shahid Ahmed to lead the P5G portfolio as evidence of its intent.

Ahmed summarized this pitch, saying: “Global enterprises are looking for a single private 5G solution to deploy across multiple countries. They need one truly private network, one point of accountability, one management platform, and one solution partner that eliminates all the major friction points across the entire global footprint of the enterprise.”

The question is whether these large multinationals will want to outsource their 5G private networks to NTT in this way, given that some at least are already taking the lead themselves, sometimes in conjunction with major infrastructure providers such as Nokia, other times with Tier 1 operators that already have global reach, like Vodafone.

NTT is also underlining micro-slicing technology, which is designed for enterprises to slice and dice their networks more granularly down to individual local use cases. The supposed benefit is greater capability to cater for varying levels of QoS while optimizing use of available spectrum. This also helps enforce role-based security policies at a device or workgroup level, with access control managed dynamically through software.

The micro-slicing technology appears to be provided by Celona Networks, a start-up that developed this technique on a 5G multi-tenancy principle that automatically enforces and tracks key service indicators, including latency, jitter, bit-rate and packet errors.

The origin of enterprise wireless-as-a-service perhaps lies with WiFi rather than cellular. On both the consumer and enterprise fronts, WiFi progressed from being nice to have to an essential medium for conducting normal activities, whether social or work related. This led to development of technologies such as mesh that made WiFi more resilient, higher performing and ubiquitous in coverage. It also led on the enterprise front to development of external as-as-a-service offerings, in this case integrating WiFi with broadband provision and centralized network management.

US firm SecurEdge is one of various providers of WiFi-as-a-service (WaaS) on a subscription basis, offering an end-to-end package including installation, equipment provision, troubleshooting and management. This is like a cellular service in that devices and infrastructure are both provided, avoiding upfront payment and affording some insulation from technology change and obsolescence.

WaaS can even provide some of the benefits of micro-slicing on the security front at least, by being able to compartmentalize network access, with one benefit being able to accommodate user’s own devices such as smartphones on a BYOD (bring your own device) basis. This can be extended to visitors or contractors, who could be confined to specific servers or data.

Initially then, from around a decade ago, WaaS made the running for managed indoor enterprise wireless connectivity. Earlier cellular options based on 4G or even 3G were increasingly hyped, but at first failed to gain much traction because they were still too complex to implement and lacked the necessary QoS. Gradually though cellular has asserted itself, first for those specific use cases where low latency and high reliability required. To an extent cellular got a leg in the door on the basis of WiFi’s failure to step up to the mark for reliability and high performance.

Given the complexities, there was a natural impetus behind cellular-as-a-service to shoulder the heavy lifting involved in private cellular deployment and management. But these were mostly localized offerings. One provider, Aqura, covers Australia with its LTE-as-a-service, having been founded in 2014 as a spin-off from a major infrastructure construction group in the country. It has gained customers for underground networks in mines, as well as for high-definition CCTV networks above ground and also some IoT deployments.

Then more recently in November 2020, Communications Systems based in Minneapolis, US, launched a private LTE-as-a-service offering in collaboration with UK-based Quortus for the core software. This is using the 3.5 GHz CBRS band in the USA for private 5G networks in college or corporate campuses, as well as some manufacturing plants and hospitals.