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A million private 5G networks by 2030? A million just in Europe, says Vodafone

Private LTE and 5G for industry appears to be rolling faster than anyone expected. UK-based mobile operator Vodafone took the floor at a (really cracking) private LTE and 5G event today (January 27) – organised by private network provider Athonet, beamed out of the grand hall of the Marconi Society in Bologna, Italy – to make light of a bullish market forecast that has been doing the rounds for a couple of years already.

“A million private networks by the end of the decade? At Vodafone, we believe it is possible. In Europe alone, we have about a million companies that could benefit from private mobile networks – with most in manufacturing, along with logistics and warehousing, utilities, oil and gas, and increasingly in healthcare.”

So said Marc Sauter, head of mobile private networks for Vodafone’s business division, at the start of an address that talked through the key variations on private 5G, in particular, a handful of the carrier’s own case studies, and the much-discussed problems around supply of industrial 5G chips and devices.

It was the same line, almost, (and almost the same headline) in these pages, back in June 2019; this time from Athonet, itself, speaking at MulteFire-sponsored panel session at Hannover Messe, chaired by Enterprise IoT Insights. Except the figure, then, was about the US market for private networks, and the big carriers were on the sidelines still.

“Boom-time beckons,” ran the article; Nanda Menon, director of corporate development at Athonet, was the one on the panel, then, ‘making headlines’. And here he was, again, 18 months down the road, after global pandemic and economic crash, chairing a day-long session on the same subject – and with an afternoon slot, himself, with the same title.

But 18 months is a long time in tech, especially when the planet is so desperate for help. Go back another six months, before the 2019 Hannover meetup, and Nokia was already counting-out its industrial targets. “10 million factories, three million warehouses, 50,000 mines”.

Both Athonet and Nokia have been on the mark with Industry 4.0, for years. Nokia has been discussed already, as an agitator in the industrial cellular space; but Italy-based Athonet, lesser known outside industry circles, and focused only on the core networking element, has been turning heads, too.

It seemed notable at the Bologna event that Finnish private networking champ Edzcom singled out Athonet and Nokia as the leading providers for the core and radio components in its own private LTE deployments. And it was a high-quality event; Athonet sounded like a business that had arrived, and been at it for years.

We will cover some of that in later posts; the point, for now, is the event showed right away how far traditional mobile operators have also come with private LTE and 5G, to the point they are joining with the fanfare. A million networks? Easy. Except for a few candid moments, such an embrace of alternatively-licensed cellular has been hard to discern.

But here, Vodafone, the headline operator on the bill, was clear: private cellular is the only way for industrial revolution – or at least, the only way to spring the kind of digital pyrotechnics that will light the way to slicker industrial operations. “Mobile private networks are closely linked to IoT; the same use cases apply,” said Sauter.

“The ‘fourth industrial revolution’ is all around us. Covid-19 will accelerate that, as more companies digitise their processes and production. Mobile private networks will enable all of that – [to connect] industrial robots and machines in manufacturing, AGVs and cranes in warehouses and container ports, and [similar in] energy utilities, and oil and gas.”
Sauter ran through the three degrees of industrial control afforded with different private network setups, where the connectivity and computing elements are organised, according to use-case requirements, on a sliding scale between the industrial venue and centralised cloud and network facilities.

A dedicated mobile private network brings total control, because everything stays on site. “We take what we have in the public network and package it up as an isolated setup,” he said. Connecting mission- or business-critical applications should be done in this way, he reasoned, without an interface to the public internet.

By turn, a hybrid private network establishes an interface with the public network. “There is some interworking between the two, which is important if a factory, say, wants to provide connectivity for goods and suppliers coming in and out of the premises. But there is a compromise on the control afforded to customers.”

The third option, a virtual private network, uses a dedicated slice of a public 5G network, and end-user control over the setup is reduced further, and hinges on future releases of the 5G standard, available from next year. “That is when virtual private networks will be more relevant, and a new market will open up with smaller customers.”

He said Wi-Fi, even in its latest version-6 form, is a second-string technology for Industry 4.0, albeit a useful one. “They are complementary,” he said, but the message was Wi-Fi is for less-serious jobs. “Wi-Fi is for day-to-day usage, the back office, all of the standard use cases, and cellular is for mission-critical applications like machines and robots. Private cellular gives higher performance, but they will coexist, with sweet-spots in different areas.

Sauter raced through Vodafone’s private LTE and 5G deployments, too, with Centrica Storage and with Ford in the UK, with Lufthansa Technik in Germany, and an unnamed Greek shipping container terminal. But rollout of private 5G for Industry 4.0 is faltering, for now, as industrial-grade chipsets and devices are unavailable.

He commented: “At the moment, there are plenty of devices for 2G, 3G 4G, NB-IoT, and a well-established ecosystem, with high performance devices, with a good cost-to-performance ratio. The 5G market is narrower, with fewer devices. We are working with the same LTE ecosystem on 5G terminals and cameras, but there still aren’t that many.” Enterprise IoT Insights

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