Home5GVendors sell, integrators build, operators run – the case for carrier-led private 5G (ramble on)

Vendors sell, integrators build, operators run – the case for carrier-led private 5G (ramble on)

This is a summary of a conversation with Vodafone’s group head of IoT business development, Phil Skipper. The interview will be published in full next week; the below works as a teaser, and a rejoinder to a piece published last week, called The role of operators in the weird science of Industry 4.0 (a ramble on private 5G). Click here to read the preamble. 

Vodafone has made clear the intractable value the operator community will provide in the Industry 4.0 market is with private 5G network management. It has rejected claims that traditional carriers will be run off the road, effectively, by sharp-elbowed industrial automation providers, new-breed mobile network vendors, specialist ‘vertical’ system integrators, or paranoid enterprise customers.

But, there are complex clauses and hidden meanings within this summary. The kaleidoscope has been shaken, to borrow a line, by this new digital juggling act, which mixes cheaper sensors (IoT), faster connectivity (5G), and smarter analytics (AI). This is the case for both the industrial sector and the telecoms world, as well as all the hangers-on between the lines. 

By the time the pieces settle, roles and responsibilities will have been shuffled and shared. Vodafone acknowledges this; its key message is that service providers, of whatever stripe, will be required to offer second- and third-line support for industrial-grade private 5G networks. In most cases, enterprises themselves will take charge of first-line operations. This much is clear. 

But Vodafone implies this support will not, likely, come from network vendors or system integrators, which get bundled into the Industry 4.0 mix for 5G ‘service provision’. Nor will it come from mobile operators, necessarily. The UK-based firm is speaking for itself, only; it is atypical, it reckons, with a better developed enterprise business, a long history in IoT (M2M), and factories of its own. 

It ‘talks the talk’, already, but makes clear distinction, also, between the disciplines of network operations and factory operations. As such, arguments about cultural differences between the two sides are hokum, it suggests. It has no interest to run the factory; just to offer support to run the 5G network, as a “performant” utility, and guarantee ultra-reliable design and “faultless resolution”. 

Telecoms is telecoms, after all. Vodafone will, potentially, establish regional network operation centres (NOCs) for enterprise 5G in industrial heartlands, in order to run networking diagnostics at closer quarters, as managed local-edge service centres. In conversation with Enterprise IoT Insights, it described a traditional sell-build-run process for network deployments; industrial 5G hinges on the last, it said.

Vendors sell, integrators build, operators run. That is the message. The difference with 5G is the run-phase will be shared with enterprises, which will be equipped to provision 5G networks according to operational requirements, and to run at least some diagnostics, as well. The extent of their run-remit, and of Vodafone’s in support, will depend on their size, invariably, and capacity to recruit 5G expertise.

More significantly, the sell-build-run narrative is being reversed – and subsumed by a new consultancy-phase. This is partly because we are in uncharted waters; the technology is nascent, and entirely novel for industry. There is a whole bunch of hand-holding to do; the likes of Vodafone have the surest grip, it reckons, even when scaling from a handful of generalised best-effort national networks to thousands of differently-deterministic edge networks. 

But it is also because these networks have been pegged for all kinds of business critical, mission critical, and even life critical operations. Which plays back into the (burning) question about the kinds of service level agreements (SLAs) that will underpin the run-phase, and the management of private 5G systems. Network performance is being geared in factories on a multi-dimensional slide-rule, going between latency, bandwidth, and availability, according to individual use cases. 

It is different to common-or-garden public networks, clearly, where density is arguably the king metric, just to keep Netflix streams on an even keel for commuters. Crucially, the metric that is always cited for industry is network reliability (‘ultra reliability’), where incoming 5G systems are supposed to deliver ‘five-nines’ (99.999 percent) reliability. Or was it six, or seven, or eight nines?

It doesn’t matter, is the point. You cannot just sell reliability; it has to be designed and constructed piece by piece. Vodafone has ‘almost-total’ industrial 5G reliability worked-out as a three-layer consultancy process, copied from deployment of any other kind of critical infrastructure. It goes: reliability, redundancy, resilience. 

Phil Skipper puts it better, but the idea is the network provider (operator / supplier / consultant?) and the enterprise bash heads to work out what to connect, how to connect, and how to support. In the end, the question of reliability (and assurance) in industrial-grade 5G is just about scoping a plan to deploy robust networking technologies, which is re-doubled and -tripled with backups and work-arounds, and insured by third-party support as part of a run-phase managed services contract.

So, then, as a kind of a sign-off; the whole picture has changed. The idea anyone can be a network operator, suddenly, with box-fresh private cellular is simplistic (of course); the notion the old dogs of telecoms will be left out of pocket with industrial 5G is exaggerated (of course). System integrators can’t do it and network vendors won’t do it, the story goes. Which leaves the field more open, even if it is just for last-ditch support.

But more than just in-life network management, certain senior members of the carrier community have defined a more strategic role around industrial 5G consultancy, as a compulsory preamble to every other phase in the sell-build-run process. They have in mind an even greater purpose, then, beyond private 5G diagnostics and performance SLAs. Which is where the real battle is, of course, and the real story – where system integrators and network vendors are already jostling for position. 

But it is late, and I am getting muddled; tune in for the 12-inch remix, featuring the full interview with Vodafone’s Phil Skipper next week. 

Look out for the upcoming Enterprise IoT Insights report and webinar on industrial 5G SLAs. The webinar broadcasts on Wednesday March 24, featuring ABI Research, EXFO, Metaswitch (Microsoft), VoltDB, and Zeetta Networks; registration is open here. The report will follow the webinar, early in April.

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