Going private might bring us 5G faster
Vendors, operators and enterprises are becoming enthusiastic about private 5G networks, running IoT networks separate from what’s out there in the public world. Alan Burkitt-Gray looks at the market
This is the story about how 5G is going private. Yes, there are public 5G services in China, Japan, South Korea, the US and a few other places. But talk to people in the industry and you’ll soon see that the excitement is in private networks: that is, networks inside campuses, factories, mines, ports or other closed environments.
These are places where it is essential to have a reliable, flexible and fast wireless network; but it’s not always necessary to link to the wider world. The terminals of the network are, as often as not, things rather than smartphones – anything from cranes unloading a container ship to a machine tool cutting metal for a car. It’s the 5G version of the internet of things (IoT) — and the difference with today’s IoT is that operators, but more particularly equipment vendors, realise that private 5G networks will exist in their own dense bubble.
UK-based telecoms consultant Dean Bubley puts it well, telling the story of a contact from Three Business, the enterprise arm of CK Hutchison’s Three UK, who pointed out that “its customers’ private 4G/5G networks were generally isolated, not part of Three’s macro network. They even use different spectrum. They can do roaming, but it’s not a priority.”
Bubley adds: “A central point is that most connected IoT and automation systems don’t move outside the facility. Industrial robots don’t go for a walk to the shops. What does move are vehicles, personal devices and shipped electronic goods.”
If there is no need for roaming, there is no need to rely on the mobile network operators that provide service around a port or a harbour, so long as there’s spectrum and the regulator permits the use. Take the port of Antwerp in Belgium, for example. There, Orange Belgium has built a trial 5G business-to-business (B2B) network for the organisation that runs the city’s maritime hub, spreading for 150 square kilometres on both sides of the estuary of the River Scheldt.
“We started this project because people were saying that 5G is the technology for B2B,” Werner De Laet, chief enterprise officer for innovation and wholesale at Orange Belgium, told me earlier this year. “We didn’t want to just talk about it. We wanted to do it.”
It is up and running long before the arrival of public 5G in Belgium. Indeed, when it happens Orange Belgium and Proximus will run a shared network using a mixture of Ericsson and Nokia kit; for the private Antwerp network, by contrast, Orange Belgium turned to the Chinese vendor, ZTE, to build both the radio network and the core network, which uses network slicing, a technique that allows each port partner’s traffic to be kept separate. With today’s security fears, neither Huawei nor ZTE equipment would be permitted in public networks in Belgium.
Countries and continents
Nokia is the vendor that has done most – at least most in public – about private networks. Four years ago Samih Elhage, then president of mobile networks at the vendor, told me he was talking to mining and oil companies, transport companies and banks about connecting sites “across countries and continents” without necessarily going through local telecoms operators. Elhage has moved on — he’s now an adviser to both private equity investor Madison Dearborn and to management consultancy McKinsey — but Nokia’s enthusiasm for private wireless continues.
Take Verizon Business, for example. It has teamed up with Nokia to offer private 5G capabilities to enterprises in Europe and Asia-Pacific as well as in Verizon’s home territory, the US. Tami Erwin (pictured), CEO of Verizon Business, says: “If the past few months have taught us anything, it’s that there’s never been a more critical time for mobility, broadband and cloud products and services. Private 5G networks will be a transformative technology that will drive the new era of disruption and innovation for enterprises around the world.”
She acknowledges that there are “different spectrum rules” in each country, but says Verizon will help enterprises work with them. “Entrepreneurs can take the opportunity to seize the moment.” The company will work with enterprises to acquire private licences. A number of countries — including Germany — have already allocated some spectrum to private industrial use.
Verizon is working with the 5G Future Forum, an organisation it set up in July 2020 with América Móvil, KT, Rogers, Telstra and Vodafone, to focus on multi-access edge computing-enabled solutions.
Brian Fitzgerald, senior VP of global solutions, is Nokia’s private networks champion. “Private wireless connectivity has become central to many industries in realising their long-term digital transformation goals. By delivering private 5G together with Verizon, we’re paving the way to accelerate digitalisation for the most demanding industries who crave reliable wireless connectivity.”
In November 2020 Nokia expanded the definition of private wireless networks, when it announced a province-wide network centred on the southern Austrian city of Graz. Nokia and a local operator, Citycom Graz, will be working on IoT use cases with the university and the city authorities. Citycom Graz plans to invest more than €10 million into the project. As part of this investment, Graz’s FH Joanneum University of Applied Sciences will deploy a Nokia IoT software platform, enabling it to research and develop future IoT use cases.
Bernd Stockinger, Citycom Graz’s general manager, says: “Given Nokia’s experience in providing robust, reliable private 5G networks we’re now able to provide the connectivity platform for technology innovations that can be utilised by a wide range of local stakeholders and public services providers.”
Citycom Graz will start with 50 macro base stations in the first phase, aimed at the first quarter of 2021, eventually moving to full deployment of more than 200 sites.
It’s clearly still largely experimental: hence the involvement of the university. “More and more cities are realising the benefits that low-latency, high-bandwidth connectivity can bring,” says Patrick Langelaan, Nokia Enterprise’s VP for Europe South.
Factory of the future
But the classic case for the private network is within confined premises, not over a city or province. That’s what Orange is doing with Lacroix, a French technological equipment manufacturer, at its electronics factory in Montrevault-sur-Evre close to Nantes.
Helmut Reisinger, CEO of Orange Business Services, is enthusiastic: “We are very pleased to collaborate with Lacroix group as part of this digitised, human and environmentally friendly factory of the future,” he says. “5G will be a digitisation facilitator for industry and a competitive lever for both the economic environment and all enterprises, regardless of size or location.”
There will be four indoor antennas, supplied by Ericsson, using special spectrum. There will be a virtualised network core, distributed between the premises of Orange and the Lacroix Electronics plant. “This enables local processing and data security, as well as network performance and efficiency,” says Orange.
Lacroix is calling the project Symbiose, French for symbiosis. CEO Vincent Bedouin says: “The French electronics industry is changing, and our industry needs to be able to rely on wireless technology that can cope with the massification of data at our plants. This data is the information that will enable us to carry out predictive maintenance or provide reliable and secure information to our customers in real time. This co-innovation feeds our smart industry strategy and our electronic factory of the future — Symbiose — which will be launched in late 2021.”
The emerging private wireless network industry is also attracting smaller equipment vendors. Vilicom, based in the UK and Ireland, is one such: if you’ve ever admired the mobile coverage in Dublin airport, Vilicom is where you should send your praise. It runs the indoor networks for all three Irish operators, Eir, Three and Vodafone.
Power at sea
But this year it announced it is heading out to sea — to create a network for the world’s largest offshore wind farm, Hornsea Two, being built 90km off the English coast in the North Sea on a site covering 472 sq km. When complete in 2022, it will generate 1.4GW of power, enough for over 1.3 million homes.
Vilicom is building a mobile network that the wind farm’s Danish owner, Ørsted, will use during construction and operation.
Sean Keating, CEO of Vilicom, says: “We will deploy a fully operational mobile network that spans the entire zone, allowing contractors and workers to have improved wireless access to data and information systems used during construction, as well as the ability to make regular cell calls using personal cell phone equipment.”
Once construction has concluded by the scheduled deadline of 2022, “Vilicom systems will remain in place, continuing to provide essential communications for the operational and maintenance staff employed for the lifetime of the wind farm, ultimately aiding the seamless connection of hundreds of thousands of families to a sustainable source of energy.” As an added bonus, no doubt, there will never be any chance of your batteries running down.
5G Americas, a wireless industry association in North and South America, believes private 5G networks will create new enterprise opportunities through integrated connectivity, reliable communications, and optimised services. (Incidentally, 5G Americas used to be 3G Americas, then 4G Americas: it changes name with the generations.)
Private networks can be used with licensed, unlicensed and shared spectrum, says 5G Americas. Chris Pearson, president of the association, says: “Network slicing enables a private 5G network in a secure, reliable, and super-fast way that allows networks to be optimised for the needs of different users and services within the network.”