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3 May 2022

Open 5G core or harmonized spectrum – which is critical for private 5G?

The European Union has been criticized by some enterprises for failing to emulate the USA in making midband spectrum readily available to a wide range of deployers and in a harmonized way across all member states. This would enable greater scale economies in RAN components and adoption of common components by multinational enterprises, claim proponents of spectrum allocations for enterprise or neutral host operators as well as MNOs.

This has happened in the USA with the decision to allocate 150 MHz of shared spectrum in the 3.5 GHz Band 48 to support the CBRS scheme, which offers unlicensed access as well as flexible, relatively inexpensive licences. This is expected to enable non-MNOs to deploy 4G and 5G to support a diversity of enterprise use cases as well as fixed wireless access, to complement the nationwide networks of the MNOs.

In the EU, on the other hand, the landscape is still relatively fragmented, with spectrum regulated nationally and not even Nokia or Ericsson supporting all the bands applicable across all the member states. This has not hindered deployment in countries such as Germany, but that has relied on an individual policy set by the national regulator. Germany has become one of the global epicenters for private 5G deployment to support Industry 4.0 services.

But lack of pan-regional policy will have an impact on the nature of deployments and the strategies of specialist technology providers in the field. It has encouraged disaggregation of the RAN and the core in private networks. Choices of RAN will often be governed by spectrum availability, while the core can be regarded more as a commodity, even if the applications and services deployed on top of it are tailored and may provide differentiation.

This line has been taken by Edzcom, the private networking division of Spanish operator Cellnex Telecom, whose CEO Mikko Uusitalo has argued that, partly as a result of this fragmentation, spectrum was the primary consideration for enterprises deploying private 5G networks, dictating choice of RAN, with decisions on the core following that. Selection of RAN vendors, in practice, has to be done on a national basis in Europe, Uusitalo argued, with choice of the core still being important in terms of cost, time to deployment and stability, but being subordinate to the radios.

Suppliers of core systems do not agree and turn the selection process on its head, arguing that the core must be got right to ensure scalability and performance, and that the RAN is really the commodity, even if it does, of course, have to operate over the spectrum available in a given country.

Indeed Athonet, the Italian core provider that often runs up against Nokia and Ericsson in tenders for European private 5G contracts, has attempted to neutralize the RAN issue completely with its Bring Your Own RAN (BYORAN)  scheme, introduced in November 2021. The idea was to play on the longstanding Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) concept to instill the idea that any RAN an enterprise selected would slot well into the Athonet core, where the real intelligence and security resided. The company emphasized that a large number of RAN vendors had already been tested for interoperability with its core, and that the associated management tools had been fully integrated.

Other, larger core network vendors targeting the private 5G sector, such as Cisco and HPE, are making similar arguments, and focusing on interoperability partnerships with RAN suppliers such as Airspan, JMA, Mavenir and Parallel Wireless.

To some extent this idea resonated with Edzcom’s observation that RAN choices would vary with locality and circumstance, while the core was constant. In fact, Athonet also highlighted this need for flexibility in its note that radios might vary not just between countries, but also within a single enterprise campus, with one being more suitable outdoors and another indoors.

But the difference lay on which was more pivotal, with Athonet arguing that its radio-agnostic approach would encourage enterprises to look more widely than legacy LTE and 5G RAN providers, to identify RANs most suitable for their needs.

Ericsson has taken a different line from Nokia, attempting to differentiate its 5G private offering through its approach to the core. Ericsson arrived later in the 5G enterprise market than Nokia, partly by staying loyal to its carrier customers and supporting them as primary providers of private cellular networks. Nokia set out its stall early as a lead player in private cellular, and has worked directly with enterprises, which has gained a number of major scalps, especially in Germany, where Bosch and Volkswagen are among top tier customers.

Last June, Ericsson came out with its private cellular package, which could be pitched directly at enterprises, targeting Industry 4.0 deployments in manufacturing, mining, utilities, ports and airports, and featuring a dual core that supports LTE and 5G Standalone (SA) simultaneously. The objective was to allow enterprises to deploy private LTE in the first instance, as this has accounted for most enterprise cellular deployments so far, and then migrate to 5G SA as applications dictated and suitable spectrum became available. Ericsson was then proposing the core as the stable component allowing the RAN to evolve towards SA, rather than almost the other way round as in public networks that start with Non-Standalone (NSA) with an LTE core.

Ericsson announced its first customer for this package in January 2022, working with the Australian telco, Telstra. This was Telstra’s customer AgriFood Connect, an Australian not-for-profit organization, created to accelerate adoption of technology and innovation across agriculture and manufacturing. Ericsson was chosen for the 5G SA capability because there was a demand for ultra-low latency for some of the new use cases.

Meanwhile, Cellnex Telecom has shown that the approach of starting from spectrum can appeal, announcing in March 2022 that French-headquartered provider of engineering and design services to automotive makers, Segula Technologies, had selected Edzcom for a vehicle test center near Frankfurt in Germany. The project is Edzcom’s first automotive deployment, a sector it has singled out for major growth.

To date Cellnex has scored in Nordic countries on the back of industrial, or EDzcom, spectrum, for example in 450 MHz in Finland. For the Segula project in Germany, it is using the 3.7-3.8 GHz band, set aside by the regulator specifically for local industrial usage.

A notable aspect of this project is that Cellnex was proposing a combination of Nokia and Athonet equipment for the core to maintain some agnosticism there, regarding these two as being the leading contenders on this front in Europe. The test site has private roads for testing autonomous driving and deployment of V2X (vehicle-to-everything) technology, which drove selection of the Cellnex package, according to Holger Jené, chief executive at Segula in Germany, who underlined the importance of scalability. “Adding future connectivity capabilities is essential in an industry that is becoming fully digital,” he said.