Going private: How 5G networks can enable Industry 4.0
An article in the Wall Street Journal just over two years ago claimed that the initial launch of 5G networks had “underwhelmed”.
The WSJ documented the case of a Korean technology worker, who admitted that, when the 5G networks went live there, early in 2019, they tended to switch off the 5G because the service wasn’t as reliable as 4G.
To say that 5G launched with a lot of hype is an understatement. Of course, the usual suspects – the vendors, the telcos and the system integrators – all touted the increased speed and reliability of 5G networks. But, through a cynical eye, they all had something to gain from high take up of 5G.
This time, however, politicians jumped on the bandwagon. The EU, for example, launched a “5G Action Plan” within the European bloc, claiming that a new generation of mobile connectivity would “be a key asset for Europe to compete in the global market”.
Fast forward three years and one pandemic later and the GSMA has said that it expects the number of 5G global connections to reach one billion this year – a number that should double by 2025.
So take-up has been strong. Adoption rates are four times as strong as 4G (LTE) take up according to 5G Americas.
Yet despite this the benefits for business are only just becoming clear. One use case that is leading the way, according to several figures within the telecoms industry who spoke to TechInformed, is Private Mobile Networks.
“A private network can run on both 4G and 5G,” explains Ericsson’s global head of dedicated networks Thomas Noren (pictured). “It’s very easy to plan, install and manage a network – you typically deploy it for what we call ‘business critical communication’.”
For many businesses, supporting this functionality is currently done through Wi-Fi, or operations are conducted manually. But installing a private mobile network – especially one powered by 5G – can support industries with very stringent and specific needs that Wi-Fi cannot fill.
Take, for example, a mining organisation. Getting Wi-Fi deployed down a mine can be extremely difficult to do with restrictions on cables, but 5G connectivity can be beamed down and is much more malleable. eAnd then there’s the case of the factory that needs to manage multiple robots yet also seeks the ability to turn connectivity up and down.
The market opportunity is huge. Nokia, for example, in February 2020 announced 130 large industrial enterprise customers for such private mobile networks.
GSMA Intelligence meanwhile, forecasts that between 25% and 40% of SMEs and corporates could be served via private mobile networks between 2023 and 2053.
The opportunity to launch private networks is one Ericsson is engaging fully. In January, the Swedish vendor partnered with Australian telecoms giant Telstra to deploy the first of its new, out-of-the-box 5G Private Network solutions.
The customer participating in the trial is Australian not-for-profit organisation AgriFood Connect, founded to accelerate the adoption of technology and innovation across the farming and manufacturing industries.
AgriFood used Ericsson Private 5G, a private wireless connectivity platform, to deploy an IoT infrastructure to support several business cases, including asset condition monitoring and the collection of data from machinery. Telstra provided the connectivity for the deployment.
AgriFood Connect’s acting CEO Thomas Hall, said: “Working with our ecosystem partners we identify the right solutions for businesses in areas including digital transformation and operational enhancement. Using advanced technologies like the dedicated 5G network will help demonstrate the latest advance in technology innovations.”
For Ericsson, the product offers an opportunity to work with telcos and system integrator partners to develop bespoke solutions “If you look at private networks today, it’s still considered nascent,” Noren tells TechInformed.
“But it’s starting to mature and with our new product we’re starting to see a lot of real proof-of -concepts and use cases.
“We’re focusing on manufacturing, processing, ports, airports, mines and offshore energy companies. These are all sectors that want to have a separate coverage area as they will have moving things like automatic guided vehicles, with a lot of sensors, and it is just too expensive or logistically challenging to connect them with fibre,” Noren adds.
It is a big transition, Noren recognises, for enterprises switching from running Wi-Fi networks that may have powered a small number of devices run by professionals, into connecting whole factories or farms running on one network with thousands of sensors in operation.
“The enterprises might not have the skill to set that up or run it – and they shouldn’t need to have those skills. They need to be super simple to operate, which is why we and our partners are running the lifecycle management for these networks,” he says.
Slice of the pie
Ericsson isn’t the only vendor getting in on the act, however. Take Orange, for example. France’s biggest telecoms company last year helped another telecoms firm – Ericsson rival Nokia – to create a private 4G and 5G network at Nokia’s factory and R&D facility in Poland.
Orange said the private network will benefit from various innovations and edge computing applications. It will cover the entire 13,000 square metre facility, providing the location’s 6,000 employees with access to faster, more reliable communications.
This set up in turn, will enable numerous efficiencies within the factory, including facilitating automated guided vehicles to transport products internally; drones for surveillance as well as the monitoring and deployment of IoT devices.
“Private 5G networks are undoubtedly the future of an effective industry. I am glad that we can boast a unique experience on the Polish market, conducted on existing implementations which will also pay off on subsequent projects, such as the one with Nokia,” said Julien Ducarroz, president of Orange Polska.
According to Ducarroz, the network will also offer greater reliability when it comes to inter-facility communications, including group push-to-talk and push-to-video applications. As a private network, it will not be incorporated with Orange Poland’s wider network.
And this is the key attribute of private networks, and why they are likely to become more commonplace due to 5G: the ability for a telco to offer up spectrum without harming its overall network services.
Previously, a mobile operator would need to lease dedicated spectrum from its own allocation, which involved taking it away from its consumer business, which may impact its performance or range. Renting it out to enterprises was prohibitively expensive.
One of the benefits of 5G is “network slicing” – the ability to create a virtualised network (or a slice) on the same physical infrastructure that can be dedicated towards a specific use case or service.
But while operators may be eyeing the opportunity to slice up their network to offer a private service, vendors like Ericsson and Nokia are touting the benefits of fully private networks.
In contrast to network slicing – which is based on a carrier’s full network – private wireless networks are often more localised.
Karim El Malki, president of Athonet, said private wireless is great for an enterprise that has a need for its own network that is fully controlled by its IT department. They offer secure connectivity within a prescribed area such as an airport, school or factory. These types of organisations have typically relied on Wi-Fi until now.
The land grab goes beyond telcos, however, with the likes of Amazon Web Services, HPE and Cisco all muscling in on the act in recent months. There are also companies which have often sat behind the scenes – such as BSS/ OSS provider Amdocs – that are also spotting opportunities.
The entry of network computing giants in recent months should have IT managers reviewing private 5G network offerings for such use cases as shipping and delivery fleets, tablets in factories and warehouses and robotic manufacturing according to AWS CEO Adam Selipsky, speaking at an annual company event late last year. “All these new use cases require consistent, reliable connectivity,” he noted.
While not entirely new, admitted Tom Craig, general manager at HPE’s communications technology group (created last year to help telcos and enterprises take advantage of the 5G market), 5G-in-a-box is “a ruggedized solution that can function in demanding environments – customers don’t need to depend on surrounding infrastructure.”
Enabling industry 4.0
So, what are the benefits for businesses? EY consulting chief Errol Young said that, when he speaks to enterprise clients, they’re looking for the ability to manage their own connectivity, to add more devices, but also to absorb data from more sources.
“You will have private networks within your organisation managing your data in a factory or a manufacturing plant, which is enabling you to have connectivity with machines. Yet these are generating data and information which enterprises can use,” he explains.
“But then there’s also the capability of connecting that to the cloud where appropriate and using that is really important going forward,” adds Young.
The GSMA identifies several key benefits and use cases for private and dedicated mobile networks in its 5G IoT Private & Dedicated Networks for Industry 4.0 report. These include:
- Minimising production line downtime by use of a reliable, scalable network with SLAs from the mobile network operator covering uptime and availability
- Enabling manufacturing flexibility by supporting reliable high-bandwidth wireless connectivity and capacity across the industrial campus
- Monitoring and management of goods and supplies across the supply chain
- Enabling high reliability, critical monitoring and control applications in primary production industries including mining, oil extraction, quarrying and refining industries
- Maximising productivity and manufacturing output quality by the mobile network delivering guaranteed bandwidth to support key use cases including high resolution machine imaging
- Supporting real-time decision making using locally deployed edge processing capabilities along with local ultra-low latency network infrastructure
Let’s take airlines and airports as one example. In July 2020, Ericsson was selected by Groupe ADP, its digital technology subsidiary Hub One and Air France to deploy a private mobile network covering Paris-Charles de Gaulle, Paris-Orly and Paris-Le Bourget airports.
The 4/5G network aims to serve a professional ecosystem of more than 120,000 people who work at the three Paris airports every day, across approximately 1,000 companies of differing sizes and sectors. But it also has unique challenges, such as the need to be robust, always-on, and 100% secure, as Noren explains.
“The limiting factor for how long plane stays at the gate is not the onboarding and passengers, it’s the time it takes a download data [from the airport],” he explains.
“So, if you can connect the plane with 5G, as it approaches the gate, we can save valuable time and you can get more data for preventive maintenance. You also need high security, and you can offer a much better service from the airport, while everyone working there can also be connected to the same network,” he adds.
So, what are the challenges? According to a report from Analysis Mason cost remains one primary concern.
Private LTE/5G networks can be more expense to deploy than Wi-Fi networks according to analyst Caroline Chappell. She writes: “LTE/5G network components have traditionally been designed to cater for public networks and business and pricing models are designed as such.
“Prices will need to decline to match those of Wi-Fi to enable private LTE/5G networks to reach a broader audience; only a few large enterprises can currently deploy commercially.”
This excludes SMEs and certain verticals from the market, Chappell. While she notes that a hybrid network model is expected to come with lower price points than those for the dedicated, on-premises model, she added that these models were still in their initial stages.
Complexity and expertise in networking is another potential barrier. Often those who know how to build and manage the perfect mobile network don’t have expertise in the industry they are catering for, so can’t develop solutions specific to that vertical.
This is where cooperation comes in, claims Amdocs’ GM of Networking Software Division Niall Norton. “We’re historically strong on billing, BSS and OSS stuff, and have some experience on the networking side,” he explains.
“The challenge for us is making sure the portfolio has portions that scale at the edge as well as having decentralised processing. And the other part is enabling a marketplace capability. So, we can present a marketplace for vendors to plug into and we can sell joint solutions with the hyperscalers.”
With this, as with much of modern technology, cooperation across the tech sphere is key. But for enterprises, 5G might finally have a use case.
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