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Private 5G NaaS Is Coming to the Enterprise

Private 5G may be on your company’s radar, but is managing it in-house the right long-term strategy? Or would using a network as a service model be a better fit?

For some enterprise IT shops, the thought of designing, deploying, and managing a cellular radio access network (RAN) is a foreign concept. After all, the use of cellular data networks has largely been relegated to nationwide carriers like AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile. Despite the hesitation, enterprise leadership is growing increasingly interested in private 5G in the Citizens Broadband Radio Spectrum (CBRS) and how it could alleviate many of their existing wireless shortcomings. Recognizing this, technology service providers are quickly working on developing a managed services model surrounding private 5G network technologies and how they can deliver private 5G using a now widely accepted as-a-service model.

NTT is one such service provider making this leap. NTT just announced their intentions to deliver private 5G networks to their customers by way of a managed network as a service (NaaS) model. Doing so grants potential customers all the benefits that private mobile networks provide without the concern over whether their existing IT department has the necessary skills and resources required to properly build and manage the intricacies of a 5G network.

I spoke with Shahid Ahmed, Group EVP of New Ventures and Innovation at NTT, regarding their private 5G NaaS ambitions. Ahmed discussed his thoughts on the service provider’s approach to private 5G deployments and why customers are asking for a more complete service approach.

From an enterprise customer perspective, Ahmed pointed out that CIOs are growing increasingly concerned with their reliance on existing wireless technologies that use unlicensed spectrum. In some cases, external interference is causing business-critical wireless communications to fail. Additionally, the multi-purpose use of Wi-Fi in facilities leaves much to desire as spikes in non-critical Wi-Fi use can also impact network performance. Finally, CIOs are beginning to feel uneasy when it comes to being able to secure their wireless networks so that only authorized users and devices can connect and access network resources over wireless communications. He noted, “security is the main draw behind private networks”.

NTT believes that each of these enterprise IT concerns can be mitigated with a fully integrated private 5G LAN platform. Unlike Wi-Fi, which uses unlicensed spectrum in the 2.4, 5 and now 6GHz spectrum, private 5G networks will largely be deployed in the US on the 3.5 GHz shared spectrum space. Shared CBRS spectrum differs from unlicensed spectrum in that CBRS requires the registration of spectrum prior to use. This process effectively reserves the right for the organization to access unused spectrum channels for free with little concern over external interference that currently plagues unlicensed spectrum deployments.

From a quality of service (QoS) and network performance control perspective, Ahmed mentioned that NTT formed a strategic partnership with Celona Inc., a leading private LTE and 5G technology vendor that has built a platform tailor-made for enterprise use cases. One of the key benefits that Celona brings to the table is their MicroSlicing technology. MicroSlicing uniquely allows administrators to configure QoS policy at the application level to prioritize and guarantee network resources for business-critical traffic.

Is the Enterprise Ready for 5G NaaS?

Despite NTT making a decent case for 5G NaaS, there are some potential pitfalls that must be addressed. For one, an organization may not be willing to simply hand over the keys to their wireless infrastructure to a third-party service provider. To many, there is simply too much risk involved. If one simply looks at the state of managed networking services in general, large enterprises tend to shy away from this model as it places too much responsibility on an external entity to manage.

Second, one of the key benefits of a private 5G LAN is that it is owned and managed by the business itself. Thus, all data traversing the RAN is fully controlled from end-to-end. But if the 5G network management duties are passed to a service provider to support, this perk is largely thrown out the window.

For these two points alone, it may take some time for 5G NaaS to catch on in the market. Ahmed at NTT stated that they intend to initially target existing managed service customers with their private 5G concept -- then expand outward if interest is strong enough. This is a wise move as businesses will likely sit on the sidelines to see how early adopters fare.

Options are a Great Thing

Regardless of whether you think the “right” wireless architecture is traditional Wi-Fi, in-house managed private 5G or a 5G NaaS, an important point to recognize is that having these types of technological options is a great thing. While 5G NaaS may not be the right choice for everyone, it might make perfect sense for the right market vertical or use case. As an IT decision, the key is to stay on top of these types of emerging technologies/services and be able to visualize how it could be integrated within your existing infrastructure to create value for the business either today or in the future.

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