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If you’re wondering what private LTE networks are, how they can help your business, or how to build your own, this comprehensive guide explains everything.
Specifically, we’ll explain what private LTE networks are, how they work, how they compare to public LTE and Wi-Fi, why your enterprise might need its own, and how to start building a private LTE network.
If you already know about private LTE, we can help you start building your private mobile network today.
What is private LTE?
Private LTE networks are privately-owned cellular networks made of multiple components, including radio hardware (both indoors and outdoors), mobile core software, SIM cards and a network orchestration software that can be configured to support an enterprise’s specific requirements.
This is similar to the public cellular networks most of us use every day via our smartphones, but in this case, the network is owned and operated by a private institution like a business, hospital, university, factory, or other enterprise and bound geographically to its property.
For example, take a large hospital. Many hospitals are using a traditional Wi-Fi network to try to provide mobile connectivity to their entire building and campus, but the network suffers from the limitations of Wi-Fi, including reliability, security, capacity, and coverage issues.
One alternative is to use a public cellular network operated by Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile. But public cellular networks lack the performance and security most hospitals require and can be very expensive. What’s more, the hospital’s IT department has very little control over the public network, which makes it difficult to tailor this network to the hospital’s specific needs.
Until very recently, there was no way for the hospital to build its own local private mobile network—one that provided reliable connectivity for the whole building and campus—designed to its own requirements. The technology simply didn’t exist.
Now, with new technology advances and the FCC’s decision to make more spectrum available for businesses to use, that hospital can build and operate its own private LTE or even 5G network to its own specifications.
With private LTE, the hospital doesn’t face the reliability, speed and coverage problems of traditional Wi-Fi. And with the network being private, the hospital doesn’t face the same security threats or need to pay a mobile operator for congested mobile networks that weren’t designed for the hospital’s custom needs.
So how does private LTE achieve this? Let’s dive into the details.
How does private LTE work?
Private LTE networks use the same technology as commercial public LTE, but without having to pay one of the main mobile operators (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint) to use their network. Just like the public LTE network you use today with your smartphone, mobile and cellular devices can connect to the private wireless network.
The difference is that with a private LTE network, you control where the network covers, what devices can connect, which devices have priority over one another and which applications should be protected with a specific throughput, latency and packet error service level - also known as the SLA (Service Level Agreement). This level of reliability and control is critical for applications that require guaranteed connectivity and performance, such as Internet of Things (IoT)-enabled devices in a factory setting or healthcare facilities where always-on connectivity is a must.
Businesses first lease space on the CBRS spectrum, which guarantees a specific range of cellular spectrum for that business on a county by county basis. This allocated space is where the private LTE signals may broadcast through. Access to the CBRS spectrum is a key component for organizations looking to utilize private LTE at any level. Utilizing the CBRS spectrum allows organizations to broadcast their own cellular signals without having to rely on third-party cellular providers, or public infrastructure.
A private LTE network uses 4G wireless technology. 4G is the fourth generation of broadband cellular network technology. Long-Term Evolution (LTE) is a version of 4G that’s substantially faster than the previous 3G (third generation) technology, but not quite as fast as “true 4G.”
LTE is sometimes referred to as “4G LTE.” There are technically other varieties of LTE like LTE-A, LTE-TDD, and LTE-FDD, but those are outside the scope of private LTE in this article.
The LTE standard allows LTE-enabled cellular devices to connect to the network by transmitting data across various bands of the radio spectrum.
One of the primary components of a private LTE network is something called the Evolved Packet Core or EPC. The EPC is the “brains'' of the private LTE network that can be located on on-premise, or hosted by a third-party as a managed service. EPC operations consist of different components that all work together to help direct, authenticate, and prioritize network traffic.These smaller sub components include:
- Mobility Management Entity (MME)
- Serving Gateway (SGW)
- Packet Data Network Gateway (PGW)
- Home Subscriber Server (HSS)
- Access Network Discovery and Selection Function (ANDSF)
- Evolved Packet Data Gateway (ePDG)
The EPC follows standards outlined by the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP). The way EPC functions gives the LTE network a flat architecture, meaning it doesn’t have to rely on protocol conversions to function. A flat architecture gives private LTE increased data handling efficiency as well additional flexibility across different devices and networks.
Different types of gateways manage the private LTE traffic by connecting it to the cloud through edge devices, or keeping the traffic local if needed. The Packet Gateway (PGW) is responsible for maintaining a secure link between the local private LTE network and the rest of the internet. The PGW can filter and establish connections to other devices outside of the network, and acts as a bridge of communication between 3GPP and non-3GPP technology.
Unlike Wi-Fi, there is no single password that grants access to a private LTE network. Instead, access and identification is assigned by SIM cards which can either be physically or digitally assigned (also known as embedded SIM, eSIM) to a device. Without a physical or eSIM a device simply cannot connect to the network. From a security standpoint this puts private LTE into a league of its own, making it a much more secure option than traditional Wi-Fi.
This is generally how all LTE networks work, including both public commercial networks and private networks. But here’s how private LTE networks differ from public commercial ones.
Private LTE vs Public LTE
Why would businesses need private LTE? Could they just use the public commercial networks that are already available? The biggest difference is that private LTE gives organizations an unparalleled level of reliability and control over their data and how the network is used.
When companies use commercial LTE networks they have little control over areas of coverage, data acquisition and control, guaranteed performance, and network security. These are features that can be controlled with great granularity with a private LTE network.
For example, hospitals may have medical devices that rely on cellular connectivity. Over a private LTE connection the hospital can ensure that life saving devices receive priority over other network traffic, ensuring the signal is always available.
Individual Service Level Agreements (SLAs) can also be configured on private cellular networks. Some systems use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to continuously monitor and make changes to the network to ensure certain classes of devices are meeting the mandatory requirements for speeds and reliability.
Private LTE networks also give network administrators more control over their data security. For example, the private LTE network can be easily divided to separate guest traffic from HIPAA-compliant networks that handle private health information. Private networks are owned and controlled entirely by a single company that oftentimes partners with a mobile network operator to oversee maintenance, planning, and troubleshooting.
Lastly, private LTE gives companies control over where their network will be available. Small cell towers can be deployed to cover large campuses while longer range antennas can create 5G bridges that connect distant satellite facilities. On commercial networks you’re forced to rely on existing infrastructure that may or may not be available where coverage is needed.
An additional benefit to this level of control is cost savings. Private LTE offers a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) with advancements in EPC and automation technologies. This makes private cellular networks less expensive than commercial DAS-based offerings on top of the other aforementioned technical benefits.
Why private LTE?
For most organizations, the only network they know is based on Wi-Fi. That’s true today and will likely be true going forward. However, private LTE networks provide new options and enable new applications where Wi-Fi struggles to provide significant reliability, performance, security, capacity, and coverage.
This is often because Wi-Fi networks also tend to be congested with data traffic from guests and other applications. There are other types of networks available, including fiber networks, Ethernet, and even other wireless options like satellite and fixed wireless. However, most of these options have issues one way or another that made them impractical for most applications.
If an organization needs higher reliability, interference free wireless connectivity, and broader coverage per radio installed — they turned to cellular. LTE and 5G generally outperform Wi-Fi in several applications, including those that require movement, are outdoors, or require significant, always-on reliability.
LTE was only possible using licensed spectrum available to only a few select mobile operators. So organizations were forced to go through companies like Verizon to access LTE. This meant organizations had to pay-per-bit to send sensitive data across someone else’s public commercial network.
Then, in early 2020, the Federal Communications Commission opened up a part of the radio spectrum called Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) for unlicensed use in the United States. CBRS opened up the opportunity for organizations to privately build and operate their own local LTE networks. Thus private LTE was born.
Now enterprise organizations can design private LTE networks to their own specific requirements or SLAs. They can also own and operate their own network, thus bypassing the cost and security issues of going through a third-party mobile operator.
In short, enterprise organizations now have the opportunity to trade traditional Wi-Fi for the superior reliability, security, capacity, and coverage of LTE. In fact, let’s dive into some of the benefits of LTE.
Benefits of Private LTE
Here are just a few ways private LTE can benefit enterprise organizations.
LTE, but private (which means lower costs). So you don’t have to pay mobile operators per bit.
Customization. Design, architect, and optimize your private LTE network to your enterprise’s specific needs. Designs can be tailored to specific objectives such as connecting campus facilities, or optimized for uptime through ultra-fast 5G IoT connectivity.
Security. Keep all your sensitive information and confidential data on your network rather than going through someone else’s. This helps protect data by default through SIM authentication and allow for HIPAA/PCI compliant networks.
Reilability. Optimize for low latency and a level of reliability thatWi-Fi can’t compete with. Commercial LTE may have higher speeds, but it lacks the ability to have custom SLAs or filters to be applied.
Capacity. Expand capacity beyond what Wi-Fi could offer. Capacity can be customized based on objective. For example, designing private LTE for a baseball stadium would use different hardware than a private LTE deployment for a factory floor.
Coverage. For large buildings and campuses that Wi-Fi just can’t cover. On a physical level, Wi-Fi lacks the power output needed to cover large spaces effectively and has challenges handling outdoor connectivity. From the way Wi-Fi was built it was never meant to scale to serve thousands of devices at once. Cellular on the other hand was built with large distances in mind, with 5G being able to support 1 million devices over a 1km area.
That said, how does private LTE compare to 5G or Wi-Fi?
Private LTE vs Wi-Fi
If you’ve been working in networking for a while, you’ve used Wi-Fi extensively. Everyone has. And it seems to have worked so far, right? So you might be wondering why you’d want a private LTE network instead of using tried-and-true Wi-Fi like everyone else does?
Traditional Wi-Fi may have worked for some types of organizations, but it was not necessarily the best solution for all of them. Wi-Fi tends to suffer congestion with extra noise and interference.
Alternatively, private LTE and 5G tend to offer SLA based wireless, interference free operation, and wider coverage than Wi-Fi on a per radio basis, especially outdoors. This is critical for enterprises with high performance requirements, mission-critical communications, or large spaces (like a building, complex, or campus).
For network security, LTE is less of a target and more secure than Wi-Fi alone. Since Wi-Fi is open by default it opens up the possibility for dedicated attackers and passersby to test their tools on a wireless network. Private LTE on the other hand requires a device to have a pre-authenticated SIM card. Without this card, a device cannot interact with the network.
Private LTE vs 5G
Conversely, you might be wondering why you’d use private LTE when you could use private 5G instead.
Truthfully, you’d probably want to use private 5G over private LTE for performance. 5G generally outperforms LTE with higher speeds. However, that comes at a price: 5G can be more expensive than LTE.
An easy way to compare the two is to remember that 5G has a strict set of requirements it must fill, ranging from speed, to coverage and reliability. LTE networks do not have set requirements, and instead cover a vast range of different speeds and coverage. While 5G may come at a premium price, it’s often worth it for businesses who cannot afford downtime. Below are a few of 5G requirements:
- 100% coverage
- Down to few millisecond latency
- Up to 1Gbps data rate
- 90% reduction in energy usage
- 99.999% availability
- Up to 10-year battery life for low power IoT devices
Overall, Wi-Fi underperforms compared to private LTE when supporting critical applications that require a specific SLA in challenging environments, which is in turn eclipsed by private 5G. Both private LTE and 5G offer superior reliability to enterprise organizations with more demanding network requirements for predictable performance.
In fact, let’s look at those types of organizations and see how private LTE serves their specific needs.
Private LTE Use Cases
We have a full article detailing private LTE use cases and benefits, so here are just a few use cases:
- Logistics & Warehousing
- Supply Chain
- K-12 Education
- Smart Cities & Counties
- Hospitals & Clinics
- Colleges & Universities
- Hotels & Event Venues
- Stadiums & Arenas
- Amusement & Theme Parks
- Offices & Workplaces
- Public Safety
- Railroads, Buses, & Public Transportation
- Airports & Airfields
- Oil & Gas Fields
- Manufacturing & IIoT
- Farming & Agriculture
- Rural & Remote Areas
If any of these sound familiar to your organization, then private LTE networks might be a big opportunity for you.
How to start your own private LTE network
If you’re interested in starting your own private LTE network, here’s a great place to start your journey. However, if you want to just jump right in and build your own cellular network we’ll summarize the process here.
Determine needs. The first step is to determine your business goals, needs, and requirements for the private LTE network. Does your organization value speed, security, or something else?
Knowing this enables you to design and architect the network to optimize for those needs. This can be hard and technical work, but the result is a network custom-built for your enterprise.
Set up private LTE access points / small cells. Each LTE access point (also known as eNodeB) acts as an access point in the radio access network. Each one will need to be set up in the right place—depending on your building’s architecture and materials.
These access points will need to be configured with proper timing that is synchronized with a PPS/GNSS timing source. This sync allows each node to reflect accurate time of the outside world, and help avoid interference from neighboring networks through the use of scheduling.
Proper scheduling also helps avoid jitter and latency due to network noise and over-utilization: and enables strict scheduling of traffic flows in order to protect application and device group level SLAs.
Set up the core network. The Evolved Packet Core (EPC) is the central part of a private LTE network. The EPC consists of many critical components. Architecting and configuring it all correctly traditionally has been fairly complex and not very friendly existing enterprise environments. With Celona Edge, an extension of the Celona platform, it is simply a matter of deploying another infrastructure component in an existing enterprise network.
Getting started with private LTE on your own can feel a bit daunting, but with the right help, it doesn’t have to be.
Celona partners with organizations to help plan, deploy and manage private LTE as a turnkey solution. Through a combination of hardware, cloud-native software and artificial intelligence, private LTE deployments can be orchestrated seamlessly alongside existing enterprise networks.
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