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Why private 5G networks are on the rise

This year, a private 5G network may well be coming to a factory near you. For mainstream businesses, it's time to watch and learn.

The promise of 5G, much hyped for consumers, is quickly finding its place in the industrial world. Large manufacturers have found the promises of 5G compelling and are outfitting new facilities with private 5G networks. For examples, look no further than major manufacturers. In the coming year, many of those factories will get fully up to speed, enabled by the high bandwidth, mobility, IoT-friendliness, and security of 5G.

"In manufacturing, you're going to see a lot of movement to 5G. It's going to be very large," says Peter Fetterolf, chief technology officer at ACG Research, an information and communications technology consultancy. For manufacturers to implement so-called Industry 4.0 technology such as robots, self-driving forkliftsAR/VR glasses, and drones, they will need the capabilities of 5G. "It's really important for the drones not to crash into people and for the robots not to destroy the product being manufactured. Wi-Fi, as best-effort, unlicensed spectrum, is not going to work for this Industry 4.0 stuff," Fetterolf says.

Perhaps the most obvious 5G benefit for manufacturers is that, like Wi-Fi, it lets them build a factory without wires and cables—a costly investment that, while providing network bandwidth, presents obstacles to mobility within the factory and to reconfiguration of robots and assembly lines as product lines evolve. 5G does away with the wires, lowering costs and increasing adaptability while delivering high bandwidth and ultra-low latency. 5G networks are estimated to be capable of speeds 100 times as fast as 4G LTE.

"This is the tip-of-the-spear phase. There are organizations that are into it and are spending money on it," says Patrick Filkins, a senior research analyst at IDC. "With 5G, the performance is so much improved, you can use it instead of a wired solution. It's much better for a plant." Large manufacturers, ports, and warehousing providers are the best candidates for private 5G, Filkins says, noting that some of these organizations have implemented a private 4G LTE network already.

Please read: What will telecommunications technology look like in 2026?

Next in line among organizations that require dedicated, always-on, deterministic communications are mines, utilities, and oil and gas companies, which also might have implemented a private 4G LTE network, according to Filkins. The third group of candidates consists of traditional enterprises in fields such as education, government, healthcare, and retail. Many of these organizations have implemented enterprise-grade Wi-Fi. For these organizations, airtight privacy is very important, and they might be attracted to 5G as an upgrade path mainly for that reason, Filkins says.

Factory-friendly features: Network slicing, tighter security

An attractive attribute of 5G networks is network slicing, which permits several independent logical networks to run on the same physical network, dividing physical bandwidth among them. Each slice is an end-to-end network suited to the needs of a particular application. In a factory, one slice might serve AR/VR applications that demand higher speeds, while another would serve robots, for which low latency is critical. In addition, network slices can be allocated to alleviate bottlenecks and improve throughput as workload demands dictate.

5G security improves on Wi-Fi and 4G LTE in certain ways. According to Jeff Edlund, chief technology officer of the communications media and solutions organization at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, policies and security controls can be implemented at the application and service level of 5G, a more fine-grained approach than is commonly possible with Wi-Fi. In addition, 5G uses 256-bit encryption, an improvement over the 128-bit encryption of 4G LTE. And the user's identity and location are encrypted, which is not the case with 4G LTE. However, 5G implementers that build on top of a 4G LTE infrastructure will want to exercise caution, as the new network could inherit some legacy vulnerabilities, such as distributed denial-of-service attacks and SS7/Diameter challenges, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Wi-Fi 6 or 5G?

Although organizations that have made a heavy commitment to Wi-Fi might be inclined to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6, all organizations should take a close look at private 5G and consider whether it might be a match for their needs, keeping in mind that the two can work together. "People will upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 and then implement 5G for particular use cases, and will use gateway technology between the two," says Edlund.

Indeed, Wi-Fi 6 can be an enabler for 5G, since it can serve as the radio access network (RAN) element in a 5G architecture. To provide high throughput, the 5G architecture handles traffic both in the network core and at the network edge, close to the devices. The RAN is key to delivering 5G's promise of low latency, since it lightens the throughput burden of the network core. To encourage interoperability at the edge, the O-RAN Alliance is defining a set of standards called the O-RAN architecture.

Please read: How 5G and Wi-Fi 6 will work together

Organizations transitioning from 4G LTE to 5G might want to implement CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service), a 3.5 GHz spectrum that was set aside for the U. S. Navy but has been little used, particularly in areas far from naval installations. Thus far, CBRS has proved attractive for 4G LTE deployments. Early last year, the CBRS Alliance completed its 5G specifications for CBRS in the U. S.

Buy or build?

Following the large pioneers, smaller manufacturers and mainstream businesses should watch and learn—and prepare for their own eventual 5G implementations. They should become familiar with 5G capabilities and requirements and learn how 5G will interoperate with Wi-Fi 6 networks. And they should consider developing a roadmap that will take their organization to 5G sooner or later.

"5G will be more difficult to deploy than Wi-Fi, but that doesn't mean organizations can't do it themselves. They might work with a systems integrator or use a partner to build and operate it for them," Fetterolf says.

For widespread adoption, 5G will need to be as easy to deploy as Wi-Fi. While that time hasn't come, it is on the horizon because private 5G networks will typically implement 5G small cells, which are built with the same technology as telecom base stations but use less power and cover a shorter range. "Expect the economics and simplicity of 5G small cells, whether in carrier spectrum or unlicensed space, to approach that of Wi-Fi as rollouts in 5G NR technology accelerate," Edlund says.

Please read: 5G and cloud: Telcos fight for the future

Although some network equipment providers are putting together so-called integrated black box solutions, Edlund says a better choice is to take an open approach that exposes the API for the 5G network so that different applications can take advantage of 5G characteristics. "An open Network Exposure Function (NEF) would allow new applications and services to be onboarded. We're advocates of an open approach," Edlund says. For example, he explains, a robot manufacturer could establish a 5G connection to its robots through the NEF that would enable a service representative to access telemetry information. Or that same robot could be programmed via the NEF to interwork with supply chain participants or even other factories, Edlund says.

From 5G to 6G

Filkins points out that 5G is evolving and gaining more advanced capabilities as the body responsible for 5G standards, 3GPP, readies new releases. "We have just begun on 5G evolution," says Filkins. Currently on release 16, the 3GPP will issue release 17 in 2022. Release 18 is on the drawing board and will come later. As each new release arrives, more Industry 4.0 capabilities will become available, and robots and factory equipment with embedded 5G chip sets will emerge to take advantage of them. Looking further into the future, 6G is attracting attention in the networking community as the successor to 5G. It's a continuum that promises the benefits of Industry 4.0 today for big industrial players and a new generation of intelligent, low-latency applications for mainstream businesses tomorrow.

Lessons for leaders

  • If your company wants to participate in Industry 4.0, a 5G network is likely in your future.
  • 5G will not replace Wi-Fi but interoperate with it, in particular, using Wi-Fi 6 as a RAN.
  • Organizations with private 4G LTE networks will gain higher speeds and new capabilities from 5G but should beware of legacy security issues.
  • To take full advantage of 5G capabilities, consider an open, best-of-breed approach that leverages the NEF to enable new applications and services.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.