UK government to probe private network uses, security, resilience

Even though 5G private networks have been widely used over the past three years, UK government opens call for information on their use, risks and external threats

Be it marine testbeds in the southwest of England, offshore wind farms located off the northern Scottish coast, factories and hospitals in the Midlands, or ports dotted around the four nations of the UK: private comms networks have flourished across the country. But in a somewhat surprising move, the UK government is now making a call for information on private networks to help it obtain information and views on their use, security and resilience.

Around the world, private networks are hot. According to a study from analyst CCS Insight, private mobile networks saw a year of thriving growth in 2022, with global deployments growing 62% year-on-year and generating $2.7bn in revenue, by a series of multisite deployments in industries such as transportation, mining, manufacturing and warehousing.

In the report, the analyst said private mobile networks had taken a “meaningful foothold” in the market for wireless connectivity. There were a growing number of deployment options available to enterprises in different industries and sizes, further driving growth.

In addition to many new customers adopting their first private networks, more companies were found to be rolling out networks throughout multiple sites following successful trials. CCS Insight calculated that there are an average of 2.1 private mobile networks per customer, excluding larger, nationwide deployments.

Explaining the reasons for its call, the Department of Science, Innovation & Technology (DSIT) said that since the development of modern telecommunications, there has been a need for networks that provide communications services for customers with specific industrial requirements. Private telecoms networks can be better suited than the public network at meeting such requirements, including improved reliability, security and higher bandwidth.

DSIT predicted the deployment of standalone and advanced 5G in the UK – the latter it expected to become available in 2024, using artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques to further optimise network performance and support for extended reality applications – was likely to lead to further growth in the market for private telecoms networks as organisations aim to take advantage of the high reliability, low latency, and high capacity offered by this latest generation of communications technologies. It added that as set out in the UK government’s Wireless Infrastructure Strategy published in April 2023, 5G has the potential to enable mission-critical services and underpin technologies that can bring significant economic benefits.

Yet DSIT stressed that the market for private telecoms networks was different to the public networks market, and the fact that private telecoms networks were procured to fulfil specific business needs, and to offer customised connectivity, means there is an important role for smaller specialist suppliers, as well as large technology companies, including hyperscalers. It added that the lower barriers to entry of the private telecoms networks market create opportunities for new providers and different models of provision, involving a wider range of companies such as system integrators.

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In making its case for the need for more information on private networks, DSIT said: “It is important to understand the implications of the increasing use of private telecoms networks. For example, if businesses providing services critical to the UK become increasingly reliant on such networks, damage or disruption to those networks could have significant impacts on the users of critical services. Therefore, risks associated with such private telecoms networks must be appropriately managed. This includes protecting them against external threats as well as ensuring they are resilient to accidents, system outages and natural hazards now and in the future.”

DSIT did not specify the nature of such threats and risk to networks. While the call for information was open to anyone, DSIT said it was particularly interested to hear from those involved in the development and provision of private networks, and the organisations that currently use them, or plan to use them in the future. It said that it would use the response findings to help determine whether specific government intervention is needed to promote private networks’ security and resilience.

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