Picture a massive paper mill in rural Sweden. It’s fairly isolated, located in a small town nearly 30 miles from the nearest town, and sprawls nearly a mile from rail yard and timber storage at one end to production facility and distribution center at the other. Now, imagine you want to implement an IoT solution to monitor humidity levels in both feed lumber and finished products across the entire plant site.
However, this can become a challenge. How will you transmit the data in such a far-flung place? Wi-Fi could work, but would require significant upfront investment in infrastructure such as fiber lines, routers and access points. Unlicensed spectrum options such as LoRa or LPWAN could face the same challenges. You might try local LTE cellular servicebut it probably wouldn’t be up to the task of handling such significant amounts of data in a remote area. The paper mill — with tons of metal framing and machinery that attenuate or block cell signals — is also a poor candidate for a local cell network.
Not too long ago, this paper mill would simply have had to do without IoT. But there might be a new option for previously unconnected areas and industries with the help of 5G private networks.
What’s a private 5G network?
A private 5G network is essentially a standard 5G cellular network that’s independent of the primary, public network. Though most 5G press coverage tends to tout faster video streaming on mobile devices or richer gaming, 5G private networks could be the key to revolutionizing IoT’s more complex business cases.
“Tomorrow 5G will drive your critical business,” said Jorge Bento, CTO of Vodafone IoT.
With all the 5G chatter in recent years, why haven’t we heard more about private networks? The short answer is that they haven’t been ready for prime time until now. The latest 5G standards, such as release 16, come online in June, bringing new capabilities that could enable 5G to replace private ethernet, WiFi and other networks upon which businesses have long relied.
By combining enhanced capabilities with the flexibility of customized setups, 5G private networks can give businesses the performance and reliability they need to tackle tough IoT use cases. Some examples of enhanced 5G capabilities include:
Low latency. 5G networks are now offering less than 20 milliseconds latency, which is useful for augmented reality or virtual reality applications. In terms of ultra-low latency applications such as remote surgery or navigating robots within a factory, 5G networks offer less than 5 millisecond latency. To put this into perspective, the average human reaction time is about 250 milliseconds. This means that your 5G network can respond more than 50 times faster than a human, and it never requires a break.
High reliability. The lack of downtime is another primary advantage of 5G. With reliability approaching 99.9999% up-time, 5G can now become a viable replacement for even wired use cases.
Customizable rules. 5G private networks bring their own advantages, such as being able to set rules to prioritize network traffic. With such rules in place, critical warning messages concerning pending machine failures won’t get stuck behind a glut of routine status messages.
Built-in security. Security is only as strong as its weakest link, and an advantage of 5G private networks is being able to control security all the way down to the silicon. Top-end encryption or data controls might do little to protect sensitive data if they’re run on vulnerable hardware; just think about all those WiFi routes with guest as the default password. For use cases that handle sensitive data, reliance on security settings solely at the application layer might not cut it. Private 5G can allow for better control of security not just at the application layer, but through the network, cloud or other service providers all the way down to the hardware level to both maintain the speed of business as well as protect sensitive data.
Why 5G private networks are important
Why are private 5G networks so important, and what sort of IoT use cases can they help solve? Here are some that might change how you think about industrial IoT:
Ports. Ports are notoriously tough terrain for technology. This is because ports are big, open spaces full of metal that can move, which is bad news for most traditional radio communications. Nearly everything in a port — from cranes to shipping containers to trucks — is in motion at some point in time, making wireless communication especially hard, and IoT use cases such as tracking assets for routine maintenance or executing smart contracts that much harder to execute. Since 5G uses new radio waveforms, private networks can work in metal-cluttered environments that challenge 4G and Wi-Fi. 5G’s greater bandwidth and network slicing capabilities also mean that it can track movements of thousands of items across a large area.
Factory robotics. Robotic implementations continue to grow, and robots require lots of data about their environment to stay on task and maintain a safe distance from their human co-workers. Wi-Fi used to transmit this IoT data often has shadows or dead spots in dense factory environments, while other wireless technologies can’t meet the bandwidth or latency requirements moving robots require to keep moving. With fewer deadspots than Wi-Fi and better accuracy than 4G or LTE, 5G can support precise robotic navigation and positioning within 10 centimeters of accuracy.
Temporary work in remote areas. Aside from low latency and high bandwidth, another advantage of private 5G networks is that they can be temporary. Think about operations set up in remote areas for only a few weeks at a time, such as logging sites. Temporary or remote work setups don’t need to forego Industry 4.0: Simply deploy a temporary 5G private network, then pack it up when the workers go home. This allows even the most remote operations to be able to track and maintain machinery, accurately geo-fence where to log, and add smart tags to the timber so that it can be tracked and verified as sustainably harvested.
How to get started?
How can you get started with a private 5G network? First, evaluate your need: not every use case requires 5G. There are many different communication options out there, and it might not be worth paying for the high performance 5G provides unless you really need it. Next, find reliable partners.
“It’s not about one or two partners; find an ecosystem of players to come together. And don’t start at the tower, go all the way to the silicon level to make sure you have the right solution for you,” said Jeff Miles, VP of Business Development Secure IoT and Cloud at NXP Semiconductor.
Finally, never stop exploring. 5G might open up new opportunities; but first you need to find them!
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