Private networks, guaranteed service, total control – “We are proving 5G for Industry 4.0,” says Vodafone
Vodafone will use a range of private networking options to serve industrial verticals, it has said, as it develops its advanced LTE and emerging 5G proposition for enterprises. These options include spot usage of unlicensed LTE, localised usage of public LTE, and dedicated slices of its public 5G networks.
Speaking with Enterprise IoT Insights at Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2019 in Barcelona, Phil Skipper, head of IoT business development at the UK based operator said Vodafone was in the process of “proving 5G for industry” via testing with customers and at its own telematics factory in Italy. 5G brings critical advances in latency and reliability, he noted, which open up its viabiliy as a core technology in industrial control functions.
“We are proving 5G for Industry 4.0. When you move into the factory, you move to more control-based applications, and 5G brings together a number of interesting things. Firstly, it brings private networks – this ability to lay a private network over a factory. Secondly, 5G takes IoT from a data network to a control network. Third, it introduces mobile edge computing, and fourth, it leverages cloud and hybrid cloud.”
On cloud functionality, Vodafone last month signed a $550 million deal with IBM to combine connectivity, cloud and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to help companies remove complexity from their digital transformations. “5G doesn’t just depend on fibre, spectrum and gadgets, but on advanced levels of integration, automation, optimisation and security across the ever more complex IT systems that companies are building in a bid to transform,” noted IBM in its press push.
Skipper sums up: “You have almost this perfect storm of technologies coming together.”
Vodafone is focused on five verticals: automotive, insurance, buildings, logistics, healthcare. “These are basically data-based services,” says Skipper. Its choice-verticals have been selected for their relevance and consistency across markets. “They rely on connectivity. And they’re pretty constant. So tracking an asset in Africa is the same as tracking an asset in Alaska,” he explains. “These are true global verticals.”
A number of more fragmented verticals exist below these first five. Agriculture is the obvious example: it varies by discipline (arable, livestock, for starters), as well as by geography, notes Skipper. Vodafone’s industrial view is structured so its big five verticals are served centrally and the rest go via local operations, as demand dictates. The company is organised, he says, to provide “application enablement, device management, and a range of services” to its operating companies and their customers, as required – “to build applications that are connected with Vodafone”.
He explains: “The closer you get to a local vertical, the more local expertise you need for the market – in terms of local regulation, tariffs and pricing, taxation. We focus on the big ones, and encourage op-cos to work locally to deliver local products.”
Vodafone has acquired its own vertical-market expertise over a period of time, notably in the utilities space and in healthcare. Its bought UK-based Cable & Wireless in 2012, which had owned Energis Communications, which was once owned by the National Grid. It has a track record of public-sector contracts, beyond. Before joining Vodafone in 2013, Skipper was with Siemens, variously in charge of its markets and portfolio within its infrastructure and cities organisation, and director of electro mobility. He has held roles at Landis + Gyr and Mars, as well.
This in-house know-how will pay off as Vodafone addresses new industries with new technologies, he suggests. “We can talk to customers in their language about how use connectivity, rather than talk as a telco,” he says.
But what about manufacturing? It seems, manufacturing exists outside of this multi-layered vertical segmentation for Vodafone, as a use case for 5G. Incoming versions of 5G NR, which make use of the new specification for ultra-reliable low-latency communications (URLLC), as prescribed in 3GPP’s Release 16, brings total control to the factory floor – because of its ultra reliability and low latency.
Vodafone splits factories into two: process automation (“the machines that make the stuff”) and factory automation (“the things that move around the factory”). This second discipline covers the workers, products, vehicles, storage and racking. URLLC-flavoured 5G, complemented by low-power wide-area (LPWA) LTE variants, introduces the real-time controls of each these factory elements – “as moving assets” on the factory floor.
“We’ve suddenly got an almost perfect view of what an industrial organisation looks like,” says Skipper, of the emerging technological toolset that is available to sectors like manufacturing. Vodafone has a telematics factory in Varese, in Italy, which will develop as a proving ground for industrial 5G. “We’re looking at how can we take Industry 4.0 and 5G into our setup.”
But the role of public network operators is fields such as manufacturing is not clear. Their ability to serve these markets is not a given. Skipper has spoken robustly on the need for operators to go further to guarantee 5G services, offered variously on private networks and public network slices, if they are to win business from the digital transformation of the industrial sector.
But what does it take for operators to put their reputations on the line, in order to guarantee so-called 6x9s reliability and secure business with the industrial set? “It’s no longer about 6x9s,” says Skipper. “Customers are increasingly reliant on connectivity to drive their services. That’s where the interest comes, and private networks are a good example – because they provide a self-contained connectivity block that sits over a factory, and gives the highest quality of service.
“So instead of talking about X per cent of population coverage or Y per cent of geography, we need to talk about 100 per cent of planned manufacturing output. That’s the change for operators – it’s about how they measure their own performance, based on how their customers measure it.”
Interesting times, as they say. Behind the scenes at Mobile World Congress 2019, in the meeting rooms rather than the conference rooms, it was notable how the old telecoms market is shaking up around the industrial opportunity afforded by 5G.
Ericsson and Nokia, for example, appear to be taking different paths, or different tones, at least – with the former standing behind old familiars in its drive for new business, and Nokia stepping out of their shadows to go direct to enterprise to set up private networks. The operator community sounds like a collection of individuals, again, too, constructing new industrial narratives around their own particular strengths – too long and too often stifled by their joint-placation of the mass market with ever-more data.
Meanwhile, industrial companies are looking at ways to manage their own private networks, even to cut the old telecoms providers out, whether by deploying networks in unlicensed spectrum via specialist integrators, or picking up spectrum licences of their own. Where is Vodafone in all of this? “We’re going to play in a number of different roles,” says Skipper.
He runs through the industrial networking options, with higher-grade LTE and URLLC-style 5G: there are standalone private networks, as Germany is considering in the C-Band for its own national treasures; there are hybrid networks, where local usage of a public network is ring-fenced for industry; and there will be, at some point, public end-to-end 5G networks, which will be ‘sliced’ up into parts for autonomous driving, and other critical applications.
Vodafone will offer each of these industrial networking options. “We will start with the private network, and then we move up as national deployments evolve,” says Skipper.