One of the hottest topics in tech today is the notion of private 5G networks. The idea behind this is to bring the high bandwidth, low-latency capabilities inherent in 5G into private businesses, giving them the opportunity to create new applications that have the speed and reliability of wired networks along with the flexibility and security found in cellular-based, wireless connections.
Virtually every major tech company out there, it seems, has talked about some way they can help enable private 5G, either via chips, hardware, or some element of the many types of software necessary to enable such a solution. At last week’s re:Invent, however, Amazon’s AWS cloud business managed to pull all the required pieces together in a surprising and potentially game-changing new offering called AWS Private 5G.
The new AWS service leverages the company’s enormous cloud computing resources and its pay-as-you-go business into a solution that allows companies to turn on a new 5G network in a matter of days instead of the months that it typically takes.
Amazon supplies the antennas and other RAN (radio access network) hardware as well as the SIMs used to connect devices to the network, and then leverages its Open RAN software and Outpost on-premise compute hardware to give companies everything they need to get started. Cleverly, because all cellular networks require the use of radio frequency RF spectrum, Amazon chose to leverage the freely available GAA (General Availability Access) portion of CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service) as its means of delivering the network’s wireless signals.
While a few critical details are still to be determined and some important questions remain unanswered, at a glance, the combination appears to be a very robust offering that makes it significantly easier to start a private 5G network.
Up until now, one of the big stopping points for private cellular networks of any kind has been the cost and complexity involved in setting one up. The costs for getting access to licensed RF spectrum alone has been a deal-killer for most organizations that have considered the concept. By using the relatively new and freely available CBRS bands (which range from 3.5-3.7 GHz in the US, very near the highly coveted C-Band spectrum, a.k.a. mid-band, that major US carriers are about to launch), Amazon and the companies that choose to try the service are avoiding those costs entirely.
Another big challenge for companies that have wanted to leverage private 5G (or 4G) networks, is the complexity of the equipment and the software necessary to manage the network. Unlike corporate Wi-Fi networks, which have developed straightforward network management tools, cellular network management is a specialized skill that few people outside of major telco carriers have. That’s partly why most organizations with private 5G networks (or aspirations) begin their conversations with telco providers or other organizations with extensive experience in working with carriers. It’s simply not something most enterprises want to (or know how to) deal with.
At the same time, one of the things that separates 5G from 4G is the ability to do more computing within the network itself. Many edge-based applications, for example, are essentially meant to be AI-powered applications that run at the “edge” of a wireless network. As a result, because the major carriers have less experience in this area, most of them have started partnering with cloud computing providers (e.g., Verizon with AWS, AT&T with Microsoft Azure, etc.) to help bring together the worlds of 5G wireless and cloud computing.
Private 5G networks are expected to be one of the larger revenue opportunities for carriers. Some have even called it the first “killer app” for 5G.
That’s why this new AWS Private 5G offering is so intriguing. AWS started with its cloud heritage, built the software tools necessary to run telco-focused workloads, then pieced it all together with the one element it didn’t natively have—the antennas and hardware RAN components—to create a complete solution.
To be clear, AWS is partnering with RAN hardware providers, not creating its own hardware, as part of its offering. The company has yet to reveal who those partner companies are though. This is the opposite of the traditional concept of the carriers leading with a wireless network offering and then getting the necessary partners on the computing side, which they have clearly started to do Intel, Nvidia, Qualcomm, Dell, HPE, Cisco and many others have all started efforts with carriers.
This also reflects the speed cloud providers are able to create solutions and potentially cut out carrier partners entirely. In many ways, the pay-as-you-go model offered by Amazon is more compelling for something like a private 5G network than its computing model because of the large upfront capital costs that private networks typically require.
As the cloud providers have been building up their telco-related efforts (primarily on the network operations side) for the last few years, an offering like AWS Private 5G has been a long-term goal for several big cloud players, but this is the first instance it’s actually happened (though I certainly expect other major cloud providers to follow suit). Now, Amazon did say they would be able to connect with, and therefore partner with, the major carriers’ public networks, so I do expect crossovers to occur. Still, this should be a big wakeup call to the carriers.
As great as AWS Private 5G appears, a few uncertainties remain. First, while potential interference and network congestion are a non-issue right now because there is still so little usage of the GAA portion of CBRS, as with Wi-Fi and other unlicensed spectrum, if enough companies choose to leverage it, those problems could arise. Of course, cellular coverage reaches much farther distances than Wi-Fi, so the issues are not identical. However, they are something to consider.
Second, while having Amazon supply the SIMs for connected devices sounds useful, it raises questions about how to use devices that already have SIMs on these networks, like every single active smartphone in the world. In some situations, private cellular networks require devices to have multiple SIMs in order to be used on both private and existing public cell networks. The eSIM capabilities of modern phones could be leveraged to overcome some of these concerns, but questions still remain about how to provision and manage these existing SIM-equipped devices.
Finally, there are still important questions about what types of applications require private 5G and what other types might work just as well (and be managed more easily) on something like a new WiFi 6E network. There are plenty of industries, including manufacturing, health care, and others, for which the security or latency-sensitive benefits of cellular vs. Wi-Fi are clear, but in others, more will need to be done.
Probably the most interesting outcome of the AWS Private 5G announcement is that it will accelerate the discussion and the early deployments of this technology. There seems to be many interesting potential applications, but until more companies start to deploy their own private 5G networks, we won’t know exactly.