Jul 13, 2023 - Technology

5G goes members-only

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

After years of public 5G networks rolling out nationwide, the biggest mobile network action is now in private 5G networks.

The big picture: The private networks are popping up not just in places where they were long expected, such as schools and hospitals, but also at sports events, festivals, construction sites and mines — anywhere businesses are trying to wow their customers or speed up operations.

Why it matters: America's huge appetite for connected experiences and organizations is exceeding what sometimes patchy and insecure public 5G networks have delivered.

  • That’s led to a surge of private 5G innovation, including the arrival of pop-up 5G networks at sporting events and festivals and special units designed to help with disaster relief.
  • The shift also has an element of global competition: more than 5,000 private 5G networks are running in China, leaving the U.S. in catch-up mode.

Driving the news: The Cleveland Clinic on Tuesday opened a new hospital in Mentor, Ohio, one of the first in the nation to be built with private 5G in mind: a “fully digital hospital infrastructure,” per Matthew Kull, Chief Information Officer at Cleveland Clinic.

  • The facility uses Verizon 5G for robot check-in kiosks, high resolution cameras in every patient room, assisted surgery and imaging and patient infotainment.

What’s happening: Mobile networks are no longer the exclusive domain of big telecom companies.

  • Tech companies including Amazon, Cisco and HP have become significant players in 5G, spurring new partnerships and surprising results.

Customers who only need temporary or small networks can opt for virtual 5G networks that rely heavily on software.

  • That can means huge companies like Amazon end up serving the smallest companies, while telcos seeking to pay for massive investments in spectrum license chase the biggest customers.

Construction projects have proved a lucrative market, even in dense urban areas with plenty of broadband. Private 5G can be cheaper and quicker than digging up roads for new cables, or dealing with historic building preservation rules.

Sports use cases range from massive events like the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Miami in May, where private 5G helped keep 250,000 fans moving and purchasing, to the Phoenix Suns' new practice facility, which uses 150 wall and ceiling cameras and sensors to capture each player’s every movement. In past NBA seasons, the team had to get by with just four cameras.

Verizon executive vice president Craig Silliman told Axios that private 5G use cases range from mining companies in isolated areas to heavily regulated banks to military facilities like Pearl Harbor Hickam joint base, where Ericsson and Verizon are partnering to improve the base's aircraft maintenance.

What they're saying: Jan Hofmeyr, an AWS vice president, told Axios "there's a lot of room for everybody" in the private 5G market.

  • Hofmeyr said Amazon's development and use of private 5G was spurred by needing a more effective network for operating autonomous robots than WiFi.
  • By developing their own 5G systems, Amazon gained more productive (and constantly monitored) workers and robots — and a 5G business line for AWS which pairs with other AWS Cloud services.

The Lightning in a Bottle music festival, held at a remote location outside of Bakersfield, California in late May, was improved by using private 5G, Jordan Reed, a network architect at entertainment company DDR.Live, told Axios.

  • Relying on WiFi and multiple vendors created ongoing hassles at past festivals, Reed said — from problems with wristband scanners to a network outage when radio installations failed at the 2022 festival.

Yes, but: One reason private 5G has been slow to ramp up until recently is that the previous network generation, LTE, can get the job done in most cases.

  • "You can serve 95% or so of use cases with private LTE and there is no real need for 5G," per Pablo Tomasi, an analyst at Omdia.
  • Around half of all new private networks announced globally in 2022 incorporated 5G, per Analysys Mason, but in the U.S it’s only 26%.
  • The U.S. lag is partly due to the popularity of LTE networks that operate on spectrum the FCC released in 2015, known as Citizens Broadband Radio Service.

Editor's note: The quote from Jordan Reed in this story has been corrected to show that he said the music festival was improved by using private 5G, not that it "couldn't have been delivered" without it.

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