Home5GAutomatic for the people – why private networks are public affairs (impressions of Hannover Messe 2019)

Automatic for the people – why private networks are public affairs (impressions of Hannover Messe 2019)

In Germany, they’ve made a verb out of the UK’s protracted divorce from the European Union: ‘to Brexit’ – sich verabschieden, aber nicht gehen (to say goodbye, but fail to leave). It was a joke doing the rounds at Hannover Messe 2019 last week, and is probably being deployed in bierkellers across continental Europe every time someone turns to leave, only to conclude the party’s not finished.

It brings to mind the match-making between the telecoms sector and the industrial space that has marked the early tech conference season, and was on show again in Hanover (Hannover). But there was difference, here, compared with the the big talk about a happy union between the two sides in Barcelona last month.

In most of the halls in Hanover (in most of every hall, except one), talk of 5G was greeted with a roll of the eyes; the idea of letting telecoms operators anywhere near the controls was waved away. The industrial sector holds the cards, it seems. On the show floor, telecoms operators were presented as supplicants in this play of industrial reinvention.

They were like the British PM in Brussels a couple of weeks back, holed up in a delegation room on the ninth floor while the EU27 considered her appeal for delay – over a dinner of “green lentils, langoustine terrine, and roast duckling”. Except the telecoms industry is trying to get into the party, rather than out of it. I just can’t think of the verb.

Germany came up with the concept of Industrie 4.0 in the first place, and this show felt like its headquarters – like the industrial equivalent of the Berlaymont building in Brussels.

Telecoms stalwarts Qualcomm and Nokia had convened a ‘5G Arena’ in hall 16, sprung with a 5G-like network, and roped in Bosch, Siemens, and Volkswagen, among others, to cheer-lead the industrial 5G era. It felt like an infiltration, almost, and a reversal of the recent Brexit summit – a green-lentil-and-telecoms cook-out, in industry’s backyard.

In reality, the telecoms sector at large is well served in this negotiation. With 5G, it has an ace in the hole, to shift the metaphor. Most of the eye-rolling on the show floor at Hannover Messe 2019 was because it is still three years out, in industrial terms. Most exhibitors wanted to talk business, after all, and a combination of Wi-Fi and ethernet cabling, while not perfect, will go a way to animating a digital factory.

The catch for operators is it is not their card to play. The German government is liberating spectrum for industrial ownership. BNetzA, the local regulator, is a “trend-setter”, said Bosch in Hanover. Other countries will do the same, in different frequencies. The CBRS band in the US will have similar impact. Telcos are no longer the only customers for 5G gear, which knocks them back in their bargaining over its industrial operation.

There are 15 million others, lest we forget, according to Nokia’s calculation of potential venues for private cellular networks – compared with only seven million base stations for all the publicly-available networks on the planet. Anyone can be a network operator in the 5G era. Like other utility markets, telecoms will be disrupted by a distributed supply model.

It complicates the pitcure for operators, seeking to reinvent themselves with 5G as industrial champions, and makes them like Theresa May on the ninth floor of the Berlaymont building.

A quick diversion. Hannover Messe 2019 was a weird show – for a first timer at least, used to the intensity (and easy catering) in Barcelona. It was vast, spread across 20-odd halls at an old airline works, with trees and grass verges, and a striking conference centre, which looked like a Bond villain’s hideout. It is not like MWC, which bursts at the seams.

If there really were 210,000 people in attendance, as the Deutsche Messe claimed, then they were scattered across the fairgrounds – and bulked out by students, plus a smattering of old folk and kids. The calmness of the metro, the fullness of the car park, the quiet of the town gave the impression this was a show of Germany’s industrial power.

And some power, with its continental neighbours muscled-in alongside. Even if Bosch chief Rolf Najork worried in Handesblatt about Europe’s progress as an industrial bloc versus the state-geared pace of Asia and the digital experience of the US, his country looked well-placed on the back of this event. German chancellor Angela Merkel walked these floors on Sunday night as an ally; her fist-bumps with robots aren’t just for the cameras.

They are for the economy, which is conflated with the people. For politicians, industry in general must take precedence over industry in particular – and telecoms for sure, even when it comes to prime spectrum. The industrial potential of LTE and 5G makes private networks the most public of affairs.

The trade-fair pyrotechnics at Hannover Messe were on a grand scale, and intended for a global audience as well. Siemens’ main stand promoted a juggernaut of modern industry. Bosch and SAP had big stands, too, painting a picture of future industrial triumph. And Deutsche Telekom, the only tier-one operator with a stand of its own (curiously, Orange and Vodafone were absent this year), looked at home among the industrial set, presenting a vision of hybrid public-private networks.

But something about Siemens, as an artistocrat of German industry; the skewing of its narrative away from US-based GE’s, which ran parallel for so long, is notable. GE Digital blew the doors off the industrial IoT space, but Siemens is the one to have barrelled through. Yes, it has been cautious (the term always levelled at European industry). But it has also been deliberate in its every step, and bought shrewdly, if expensively, along the way.

Its portfolio covers the gamut of manufacturing disciplines from design and planning, through verification, execution, box-building, and digital twinning. It looks complete. And the charge levelled at it – that its parts are bought-in or else reskinned from others – speaks better of the nascence of the IoT market, and the bottom-up innovation that spurs it.

Hannover Messe 2019 reflected these ideas, with such an overlap of offers from exhibitors that it was hard sometimes to decipher their proper authors. So you’ve got an IoT platform? Is it really yours? So you’ve got an analytics package? Who from? Where’s your machine learning at? What is AI, anyway?

This show made clear digital factories are within grasp, with technologies that already exist. The biggest industrial brands threw their weight behind 5G as a springboard for even more advanced factory control and intelligence. In the end, the truth about industrial 5G, and its chief portagonists, probably lies somewhere between the bluster of MWC 2019 and the bombast of Hannover Messe 2019.

As suggested, Deutsche Telekom struck a comfortable pose at both events, and a Deutsche Telekom exec turned to me here to observe there are only, actually, 20-30 companies in Germany that are inclinded to manage their own private networks – out of millions, potentially. Everyone else will seek out a specialist for the job, including new operators and integrators. Don’t over-egg the mixture, implied Bosch, in a separate conversation; the cake is big enough for everyone.

Provided their network coverage or spectrum position stretches far enough, then telcos will surely make decent money out of the provision of private networks for the digitalisation of industry – as defined in the economic-change strategies of most governments.

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