Private 5G might just make you rethink your wireless options

Early adopters in academia, manufacturing, and the military have chosen private 5G for its bandwidth, propagation features, and reliability.

5g cellular tower
Shutterstock / Alexander Yakimov

The hype surrounding 5G ranges from Jetsons-like futurism to deep-in-the-rabbit-hole conspiracy theories. On the consumer side, 5G is still serving up more sizzle than steak, mainly because the technology is so new, handsets so few, and infrastructure still mostly 4G LTE or earlier, so developers are still figuring out how to take advantage of its capabilities.

In the enterprise, however, the 5G future is already starting to take shape away from the office and out in factories and fields.

While driverless cars may still be a long way off, real-world enterprise 5G pilot projects range from autonomous forklifts to laser-guided strawberry pickers to enabling the remote control of offshore oil rigs during typhoons. Businesses are also contemplating ways to combine 5G, robotics, and AI to plug gaps in hiring, with such devices as automated harvesters, robot waiters, and autonomous droids and drones replacing human workers.

Cal Poly deploys 5G to spark innovation.

To help unlock the innovative promise of 5G, California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) is working with AWS and Federated Wireless to install a campus-wide private 5G network, which will improve connectivity throughout the San Luis Obispo, Calif. campus, while also underpinning the university’s new Digital Transformation Hub (DxHub).

“Cal Poly is a data-laden environment where, to unlock the true value of that data, the data must constantly move to where it is needed,” said Bill Britton, Cal Poly’s vice president for IT services and CIO. Unfortunately, the university’s legacy Wi-Fi networks were straining under the weight of that data. Before investigating 5G options, Cal Poly’s IT team audited their networks to see how, where, and why data overloaded existing networks. They tracked usage down to the component level and found things like a single Xbox downloading close to 2 terabytes of data, as a single student’s console served as a gaming hub for more than 1,500 other people worldwide, all gobbling up Cal Poly bandwidth.

“What happens if an Xbox is consuming that much bandwidth during registration or final exams?” Britton asked. “There’s a myth that you can just add more bandwidth, but with Wi-Fi, the infrastructure itself will always be the major limiting factor,” he said. Without costly traffic management add-ons, legacy Wi-Fi has severe limitations, including issues with hand-offs, interference, and the insufficient roaming capabilities.

With the launch of Cal Poly’s 5G network, the university can leverage the cloud-based advantages of SaaS and 5G’s use of shared-spectrum Citizen’s Broadband Radio (CBRS) bandwidth. “We’re driving innovation for smart buildings and smart agriculture by introducing new devices and applications, and now we have a more reliable way to get data from point A to point B. Federated Wireless and AWS are giving us the 5G backbone to make the digital campus a reality,” Britton said.

Faculty and students across disciplines are working on projects that include smart greenhouses, autonomous farming, and a construction-management pilot to create a digital twin of the campus.

The multi-tenancy capabilities of the 5G network enables Cal Poly to partition resources for different requirements and user groups. This means the private 5G resources can scale to accommodate whatever projects students and faculty spin up, but it can also automatically enforce policies, so, for instance, a gaming console doesn’t take bandwidth away from classrooms.

Del Conca USA supports factory automation with 5G.

One example is Del Conca USA, a subsidiary of Del Conca Group, an Italy-based global manufacturer of residential and commercial tile. It operates a 30-acre manufacturing plant in Loudon, Tennessee, that relies on a range of automated systems and IoT devices. “Because we operate within a large and challenging manufacturing environment, reliable wireless mobility and connectivity are vital to our operational success,” said Luca Chichiarelli, Head of IT Operations for Del Conca USA.

Del Conca operates dozens of automated guided vehicles (AGVs) that work alongside human-operated forklifts, both of which communicate wirelessly to the programmable logic controller (PLC) systems that help them move pallets of Italian tile around the facility. Workers also use mobile handheld tablets to connect to the backend warehouse-management system, and, on the production line, plant staff uses the wireless network to report problems with equipment, quality control issues, and other production-related challenges. 

When interference, congestion, or signal obstruction interrupt IoT connections to the network, Del Conca’s production process stalls. Devices on its Wi-Fi network would also frequently be stymied by weak signal strength (often below -80dBm), which wasn’t strong enough for AGVs and forklifts to maintain or even establish reliable connections to the PLCs. Because Del Conca’s legacy Wi-Fi system continually failed, truck-loading times grew longer, loading errors were more frequent, operators lost time looking for goods, and the plant experienced production backlogs.

“Our legacy Wi-Fi system was simply unstable and couldn’t deliver the reliability and uptime necessary to support the critical production processes that are fundamental to our business,” Chichiarelli added.

To remedy this problem, Del Conca USA began investigating private 5G options. After evaluating various private wireless and public carrier services, the Del Conca IT team selected Celona’s private wireless system, which provides a range of coverage options, including 4G LTE and 5G.

One advantage of a private 5G network versus Wi-Fi is that cellular networks use a wider frequency band and have a more efficient signal processing mechanism, reducing coverage and mobility issues. Over Celona’s network, even when the signal is as low as -110 dBm, AVGs and forklifts can maintain connections and reliably transmit data.

Del Conca production-line workers can now use handheld devices with native CBRS support over Celona’s private wireless infrastructure to confirm production yields, report progress metrics, and track production details. Del Conca employees are also able to access streaming video to monitor critical production activities remotely.

Naval Air Station Whidbey Island chooses Private 5G.

Reliable wireless networks aren’t just critical infrastructure for agriculture and industry, but also national security, as Ukraine’s defense against Russia has been proving on an almost a daily basis since the invasion began.

The U.S. military has long prided itself on being technological superior to its global rivals, but as several high-profile hacks and data leaks have shown, the military’s cybersecurity posture must evolve to counter modern threats.

The Department of Defense recently awarded an $18 million contract to Hughes Network Systems, DISH Networks, and other vendors to build a private 5G network at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Washington state. Hughes is serving as the prime contractor for the deployment and will rely on spectrum from DISH Wireless, which provides a combination of low-, mid-, and high-band (mmWave) spectrum.

This deployment, which officially launched in March, is part of ongoing DoD 5G experimentation and will include technology from other wireless vendors, including Cisco, Intel, Dell, Boingo Wireless, and JMA Wireless.

The program is designed to increase aircraft readiness by processing massive amounts of data at high speeds. 5G will improve real-time communication coordination across the flight line, which will reduce maintenance time and decrease the preparation time needed between missions. The 5G network will also support operations and flight-traffic management.

5G expands the enterprise edge

At Cal Poly, Del Conca USA, and Naval Air Station Whidbey, private 5G is helping organizations digitize the outer edges of their organizations. 5G delivers the mobility, roaming, and coverage advantages of cellular along with many of the advanced WAN security and management features that SD-WAN and SASE provide, such as end-to-end encryption, intelligent routing, and automatic QoS enforcement.

Each deployment is still in the pilot or early rollout phase, so there will certainly be obstacles to overcome before 5G can be considered a mainstream WAN option. But for now, enterprises that need more connectivity, intelligence, and security at the edge might consider private 5G as a viable and steadily improving enabling technology.

(Jeff Vance is an IDG contributing writer and the founder of, a site that discovers, analyzes, and ranks tech startups. Follow him on Twitter, @JWVance, or connect with him on LinkedIn.)


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