Virgin Media O2 offers plug-in 5G network in a box

Hefty box said to be 'slightly larger than a carry-on' – but likely not for budget flyers

Virgin Media O2's business arm has released a plug-and-play private 5G network product, meaning customers should be able to get a 5G service operating anywhere with power and an internet connection.

Available now, the product comes in a portable enclosure and once plugged in, provides a site with a 5G Standalone private network that can be used and activated, and not just by telecoms engineers, if VMO2 can be believed.

The idea behind private 5G is that it offers organizations the ability to operate their own dedicated 5G network that can provide a more secure connection which covers a wider area than a typical enterprise Wi-Fi deployment.

Other companies already offer private 5G deployments, including BT, Cisco, Dell, and HPE, but many of these are focused on large fixed sites such as ports, hospitals, and industrial campuses.

While VMO2 is also targeting these customers, its product is delivered as a self-contained solution that can be carried to a location and connected up to provide temporary coverage at a site, for example. (The company describes it as "only slightly larger than a carry-on airline bag," but we suspect airline cabin crew would not be happy if you tried to ram one into an overhead locker.)

The company told us the system plugs into an Ethernet port for backhaul over the internet, and the private 5G network supports both VMO2 licensed N78 and shared access N77 frequency bands for indoor and outdoor use, which is determined based on the site location.

The product itself uses hardware from Nokia, which is providing both the network core and radio components, and seems to be based on Nokia's Digital Automation Cloud (DAC), described as "an industrial-grade private wireless 4G and 5G networking and application platform."

It also includes Nokia's MX Industrial Edge (MXIE) platform, which lets customers process data locally on the system in real-time, meaning business-critical applications do not need to communicate back to an application in the public cloud, VMO2 said.

According to VMO2, it has developed and deployed two private 5G platforms since the first trials of this portable model, one of which is with Telefónica's innovation arm, Wayra, which has been using it at the outfit's London offices to allow customers and small businesses to experience 5G Standalone applications first-hand.

Further trials have involved companies offering products ranging from Virtual Reality (VR) applications to Internet of Things (IoT) services.

"From startups to large enterprises, our latest network solution will enable 5G trials and deployment without the time or cost of building a whole network," Virgin Media O2 Business managing director Jo Bertram said in a statement.

However, the business was rather less forthcoming when it comes to the cost of the product, perhaps that is because it is not going to be cheap.

Head of Strategy, Innovation and 5G IoT Sandeep Raithatha told us that "the cost of the solution depends on the needs of the specific customer, and factors including the size of the site, duration and number of devices will impact the price."

CCS Insight telecoms analyst Kester Mann told us this service from VMO2 will appeal to businesses that may not have the time, resources or requirements to build a full or more permanent private network, but still want some of the same benefits of control and reliability.

"Virgin Media O2 has been steadily pushing into the private networks opportunity over the past 18 months, securing deals with British Sugar and the NHS along the way," he said.

While this product is a first for the UK, VMO2 is not the only operator looking at compact private network solutions, Mann said, pointing out that Vodafone showed off a prototype Raspberry Pi-based private 5G network-in-a-box at this year's Mobile World Congress. ®

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