Capability drives investment

Philip Mason talks to Nokia and BT about their efforts in the ‘Industry 4.0’ space, and in particular how to sell the use-case to potential clients

The middle of July witnessed a potentially important moment in the journey towards 5G for critical communications, with the 3GPP Radio Access Network Group announcing that ASN.1 of Release 16 had been ‘frozen’ (that is, approved prior to the ‘correction phase’ and final sign-off later in the year).

This is clearly good news for anyone with an interest in critical communications, taking us as it apparently does one step nearer to the roll-out of next-generation broadband across an anticipated plethora of verticals. These include, but are by no means limited to, industry, manufacturing and utilities, as well as public safety.

While availability of the technology – or, more specifically in this case, the standards – are vital to the success of 5G, however, equally important is buy-in from the sector. This includes not only manufacturers but also the aforementioned verticals themselves, some of which have been traditionally quite risk averse when it comes to replacing tried-and-tested communications.

One major provider involved in not just facilitating 5G but also taking an active role in promoting its potential is BT in the UK. This has taken the form of trials, during which the company’s newly rolled-out 5G network has been put to work within specific business critical environments, in particular health and transport/logistics.

Nokia, meanwhile, has embarked upon a series of roll-outs, through which the company anticipates a safer, more efficient – and increasingly automated – future for its clients.

Convincing the marketplace

Focusing on BT to begin with, this time last year saw the company staging a product demonstration at the Titanic Museum in Belfast, showcasing collaborative work carried out with the city’s harbour management. Having arranged temporary coverage (via a mast at the end of the original Titanic runway), the company used non-standalone 5G in order to enable the harbour’s operations team to inspect a crane, while simultaneously receiving instructions in real time through an augmented reality headset.

Speaking of the importance of the demonstration and others like it in convincing the market, BT enterprise lead Jeremy Spencer says: “When it comes to something like 5G, the first step is the Belfast Harbour-type showcases, which demonstrate the art of the possible. The next step is onboarding partners such as [mixed reality company] VRtuoso, which we continue to do.

“We have a part of BT that is designed to embrace early technologies like this, and then accelerate them. We’re just starting to answer the question of how we bring these capabilities in-house, and then put a service wrap-around on them. That will be crucial for the exploitation of 5G.”

As the readership of Critical Communications Todaywill be aware, 5G holds the promise of any number of benefits, existing in both the consumer and business environments. The most widely known of these, at least among the public, is vastly increased data rates, something which is already observable through the various consumer offerings now becoming available across the world.

The other two headline benefits, meanwhile, are incredibly low latency, alongside the ability to provide virtualised network ‘slices’ in order to deliver bespoke services across a variety of different contexts. These latter functionalities in particular will be crucial to successful deployments in the verticals mentioned above, for instance in the operation of completely autonomous vehicles.

Going back to the subject of convincing the market, what conditions will need to be in place for the technology to live up to its apparent transformative potential? At what point does it go from ‘nice to have’ to critical investment?

“From my point of view, it’s simply a matter of demonstrating to companies how the technology will benefit them in real terms,” says Spencer. “A lot of organisations certainly are interested in the potential of 5G, but they haven’t actually worked out what they can do with it.

“They obviously want to embrace innovation, and they’re at the point where they’re coming to us with specific problems which they hope the technology might be able to solve. That’s really what the Belfast demonstration sprang out of, as well as other trials such as our ‘connected ambulance’ work with University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Trust.”

He continues: “One clear benefit when it comes to 5G is the ability to roll out private standalone networks, as distinct from the network slicing piece. Having the ability to put in small cells, their own packet core and so on could potentially be hugely beneficial.

“There are a number of drivers for that, particularly within industries where they’re looking to automate machine control. The level of security is far higher as well, because data doesn’t have to leave the premises.”

For Spencer, another thing which may need to be overcome in the journey towards 5G is potential reticence from those on the ground, particularly in the more risk-averse industries hinted at above. Thankfully, this doesn’t seem to have been an issue during the BT trials, with the Belfast Harbour engineers and the technicians picking things up “just like that”.

“You always imagine you’re going to get some resistance, but their attitude was very positive,” he says. “To have that kind of support while working around the harbour was a massive confidence boost for them, I think. Again, people will always embrace new things if they can see the benefit.”

As well as the attitude of those on the ground, however, there also exists another – potentially even more sizeable – elephant in the room, relating to the current global financial and political situation. Who knows what the investment landscape will look like post-COVID-19, after all? And, with 5G now being used as a political football in the UK, how will the market respond to certain overseas governments taking it upon themselves to dictate the details of individual national roll-outs?

While Spencer refuses to be drawn on the impact of what might euphemistically be referred to as ‘the Huawei situation’, BT has put out a statement providing reassurance in terms of the network itself. It reads: ‘BT currently estimates that full compliance with the revised [government] proposals would require additional activity, both in removing and replacing Huawei equipment from BT’s existing mobile network, and in excluding Huawei from the 5G network that BT continues to build.

‘However, now we have clarity on the timing [by the end of 2027], it is estimated that these costs can be absorbed within BT’s initial estimated implementation cost of £500 million.’

Proximity to explosives

As well as BT, another major company investing heavily in the Industry 4.0 space is Nokia. An example of this investment coming to fruition is its current roll-out of private wireless services at the Carajás iron ore mine in Brazil.

Speaking of this, senior vice-president of Americas for Nokia Enterprise, Mike Calabrese, says: “We’re partnering with [telecommunications provider] Vivo on what will be the first mining operation in Brazil to deploy a private LTE solution.

“It will be used to control autonomous mining equipment – such as ore trucks and drill rigs – for increased productivity and worker safety. Mine-wide communications between workers will also be part of the use-case as well.”

He continues: “At the same time, we’re also working with Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology to deploy a private wireless network at its test mine in Tampere, Finland, this time based on 5G. That will cover use-cases from communication to fleet automation, analytics and health and safety. Our Digital Automation Cloud (DAC) will allow Sandvik to securely collect, process and host all proprietary data on site.”

As is the case with BT’s Spencer, Calabrese is hugely optimistic about the potential of the technology, particularly when it comes to the provision of what he refers to as “ubiquitous connectivity, with more bandwidth and low latency”. This will be particularly relevant, he believes, for “physical asset-intensive” industries, such as the aforementioned transportation, manufacturing and, of course, mining.

Discussing the issues facing mining in particular, he says: “The mining industry considers workplace safety as top priority, with ‘total recordable injury frequency’ (TRIF) consistently appearing as a key metric in their annual reports. Ninety per cent of mining accidents are caused by human error or worker fatigue.

“These are, frankly, extremely dangerous environments, where people are called not only to work in remote locations, but also in proximity to heavy machinery and moving vehicles, as well as dealing with explosives. They are often also very confined, noisy spaces, where employees are in contact with hazardous substances.”

He continues: “With that in mind, organisations now have the opportunity – thanks to COVID-19, as it turns out – to implement long-delayed changes to the way these facilities operate. With many operations either suspended or reduced, the pandemic has led to an ability to re-think safety protocols, procedures, personal protection, and indeed the mine’s whole future mode of operations.

“This in turn has led to companies looking to extend and utilise communications technologies in new ways. This includes asset health tracking, process automation and even monitoring the health of staff members.”

The important subject of worker safety leads us very neatly back to the issue of how to convince potential customers of the use-case. If what Calabrese says is true, after all, it sounds rather like the technology has the ability to sell itself, at least within certain verticals.

Addressing this, he says: “Many of our customers are indeed showing a fervent interest in the potential of this technology. We now have many examples of industrial customers/ecosystem partners being able to set up 5G trial networks in order to test the technology in the real world. They want to validate their use-cases with OEMs, machine vendors and system integrators.

“We now have customers in markets like Germany, Japan and the UK, where their vertical local spectrum is only suitable for 5G. So, they are looking for early adoption. Today, Nokia has more than 30 enterprise customers [who are relevant to this conversation].”

Continuing on the subject of spectrum, Calabrese believes that local limitations in relation to 4.9G are also likely to lead to a massive uptick in organisations rolling out private wireless networks, a la the Carajás mine in Brazil. He backs this up with figures published by technology specialist ABI Research.

“The private wireless market is expected to grow to €16.3bn in 2025,” he says. “We also predict the potential for more than 14 million global industrial sites to be equipped with private wireless connectivity in the coming decade.”

He continues: “According to Nokia Bell Labs, when considering 5G, the performance of 4.9G/LTE is good enough for more than 85 per cent of today’s applications.

“They therefore provide a cost-effective and fast way to connect with billions of IoT-enabled devices and assets on industrial sites.

“Once enterprises are ready to make the switch to 5G – when the ecosystem is mature, or they are introducing new use-cases – the upgrade from 4.9G/LTE will be seamless.”

According to 3GPP, Release 16 is a considerable step forward from its predecessor, addressing issues such as efficiency and operation (self-optimising networks, MIMO and so on), as well as expanding the potential for use across different verticals. It will be interesting to see the degree to which capability continues to drive investment (and vice versa) in the months and years to come.