‘5G helped us through Covid’ – Lufthansa Technik on private 5G with Nokia, Vodafone
Categorically, it seems, private 5G has helped some businesses stay on track during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic over the last 12 months. That was the message last week from Lufthansa Technik, the aircraft services division of German airline Lufthansa, speaking at a private LTE / 5G event organised by Athonet. In fact, it appeared to go further. “5G kept my business alive – that is the business case [for private 5G],” it said.
Which might make for a great headline, except the company was talking about a single line of business in a single business unit, rather than about the business overall. Plus, it remains understandably reluctant to (appear to) over-state the impact of nascent technology when the airline sector, at large, has been so hampered by the pandemic. Still the sense is clear: the firm got lucky on its timing last January, to sneak two private 5G networks onto a single site in Hamburg, just as the planet went into lockdown.
To repeat: not one, but two. Introducing the firm last week, Athonet said Lufthansa Technik has more private networks “under one roof” than anyone else “in Germany, if not the world”. In fact, the two setups are in two aircraft hangars, under two roofs; but the hangars are close by, on a single campus, and the point carries. Its presentation promised to review these deployments, which caught the sector’s imagination a year ago (they went live on January 13, 2020) – because they were quick-off-the-mark with ‘vertical’ spectrum, and first-off-the-mark (outside Asia) with standalone (SA) industrial 5G.
As a twin-set, they were organised differently, too: one with a traditional mobile operator in place (Vodafone, with no mention yet of the kit vendor), and the other without an operator at all (just Nokia, as the key supplier). These twin campus setups, using the 3.7-3.8 GHz band in Germany, captured the intrigue in the market, at the time, around the likely role of traditional telcos in the new 5G-geared Industry 4.0 era.
As a subtext, they also looked to bring the perceived Nokia-vs-Ericsson channel gamble on private cellular into relief, about whether to stick with old carrier compadres, or twist on direct sales, going straight to enterprises instead. Lufthansa said it had scoured the market for practical examples of industrial 5G, and come-up empty-handed. Even late-2019 ‘5G’ installations by the likes of Osram, and other European industrialists, were either bigged-up or made-up, and flattered-to-deceive.
“All the [private 5G] networks we’d seen were actually 4G campus networks or else 5G showcases. Which was disappointing, because we wanted 5G to solve our problems.” And so here it was, a year ago, having taken Industry 4.0 into its hands: with dual 5G SA networks of its own, geared for proper usage, and the whole market watching. A year later, and the verdict is in: the results, boosted by the timing, have been great, the company said.
“We have been able to solve connectivity issues for our colleagues and clients, and solve problems ourselves,” explained Claudius Noack, IT consultant at Lufthansa Industry Solutions (another unit in Lufthansa; one looking to sell private-5G consultancy, alongside IT system integration), speaking at the Athonet event. Noack describes himself as a “tech scout, checking out new tech, to see if it’s worth using”. Private 5G is worth the hassle, he implied.
But there is hassle, it seems, especially so early in the game – and Noack failed to resolve, decisively, in his presentation how or whether enterprises with equivalent use cases should engage big telco operators (or big telco vendors). Discussion for another day, hopefully; instead, Noack concluded Lufthansa Technik’s work with Vodafone on one side of the hangar and Nokia on the other was sometimes laboured, but ultimately revelatory.
These 5G networks have kept its services business humming through the Covid-19 era, for 12 months, during which time its ability to consult with airlines on engine maintenance and refit aircraft cabins has been forced online. 5G SA performs less well than advertised, he said, never hitting the 1ms latency benchmark the market has promised; but 7ms on one side and 16ms on the other, as the firm is managing in Hamburg, is quite good enough.
“We achieved 7ms in an SA network, which is not 1ms – but a lot better than Wi-Fi, I can tell you,” said Noack. The two use cases in the Hamburg hangar required stable latency below 100ms, he said. The problem with Wi-Fi is the connection drops between access points, he said. “Which is why the video stream drops out, and the AGV (automated guided vehicle) comes to a halt.” And Wi-Fi 6? He hasn’t seen anything in practical terms to say otherwise, yet, he stated.
His commentary on the two setups, with Nokia and Vodafone, was interesting. Lufthansa managed the network in both cases, with these others taken on for kit supply and early hand-holding. The first, with Nokia, has allowed the firm to test engine parts with customers, remotely, over a 5G video-link. Customers don’t need to leave their workshops; the parts can be shipped to Hamburg, and the review and fixes can be beamed back home.
There is an augmented reality (AR) annotation tool to write over the video, and bring precision to the collaboration. “The main thing was to have a highly-reliable, high-quality, real-time video stream – which we can roam with across an 8,000 square metre site.” It is the perfect lockdown solution, reasoned Noack, and saves, anyway, in terms of travel, logistics, and associated costs; the reduced environmental impact might be calculated, too.
Noack explained: “The first call to the customer, and they said, ‘We have never had such a stable, crystal-clear feed, before’. So they were really happy. We thought we might use a big industrial 5G use case like this for 50 percent of inspections, perhaps. But we installed it in January, and Covid-19 came to Hamburg in March, and all travel stopped. So, suddenly, we were doing all inspections remotely.”
This is the headline, then. Noack explained: “If we had not set up that network, we would not have been able to do any engine inspections at all. So, really, 5G kept my business alive – that is the business case.”
This article is continued here, under the header, ‘Latency, speed, propagation – Lufthansa Technik, and the real story of private 5G’.