Private 5G Networks Bring Services to Rural U.S., Companies

Private 5G networks are being built across the country, mainly intended to connect machines rather than smartphones. This follows in the footsteps of utility companies, retailers and large enterprises that once built their own private 4G networks. Private networks are more readily customized and can offer better reliability and security than Wi-Fi over large areas. In rural Wisconsin, for example, WiConnect is benefitting from 5G to keep its 1,400 households connected to a broadband network that’s faster than ever before.

The Wall Street Journal reports that these “private networks are geographically constrained areas of coverage, intended to keep a local set of sensors, machines and computers in sync, and allow communications with the rest of the world as needed.” Now, with 5G, “many companies — even rural broadband providers — [can] bypass the traditional network gatekeepers and create their own 5G wireless networks.”

Private 5G networks are similar to Wi-Fi but use cell sites instead of routers, each with a range of a mile or more outdoors and tied to the Internet through a physical cable or, wirelessly, to another cell site.

Hardware companies such as Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei usually supply the software that runs on these 5G networks. That changed in February 2019 when Facebook open-sourced Magma, “software that anyone could use as the operating system, or core, of their own network.”

Would-be 5G private networks can also avail themselves of a slice of “mid-band spectrum known as the Citizens Broadband Radio Service” made available by the Federal Communications Commission. WSJ notes that, “the last time a chunk of spectrum was made this accessible by the U.S. government was in 2003, when more airwaves in the 5 gigahertz range were freed up for Wi-Fi.”

According to FreedomFi chief exec and founder Boris Renski, “a company or individual can now set up their own single-site 5G network for less than $5,000.” A Deloitte report from December 2019 predicted that, “by the end of 2020, more than 100 companies worldwide will have begun testing their own private 5G networks.”

Among those companies are Ford Motor, Corning, BMW, BASF, China’s state-owned Shandong Energy Group, and the U.S. military. The military is spending $600 million on five different projects.

Verizon Business president of global enterprise Sowmyanarayan Sampath pointed out that those who want to create a private 5G network “can also pay wireless giants to do it for them.” The advantages to that approach, he said, “include network-building know-how, regular monitoring and repair … [plus] access to all the extra 5G spectrum that carrier has rights to.”

Walmart is in talks with Verizon to create a 5G network that would connect its stores. Celona CEO and co-founder Rajeev Shah reported that his company is “now piloting 5G and 4G LTE private networks with more than 30 different companies and schools.”