The juggernaut workload and geopolitical tangles to make 5G work for critical industry
Critical Communications World (CCW) in Vienna this week (June 20-23) told the now-familiar story of how an influential industrial sector, which has existed in a horizontal tech vacuum until now, is coming to terms with its future as an extreme vertical in a broader standards-based 3GPP-ordered cellular world – and, longer-term, in an even wider tech-services economy, ruled by software and analytics.
But, although slow moving and hyper vigilant, the market for critical comms is also the one that started it all; the one that forced the cellular industry to open-up its fifth generation (5G) standard at a functional level to new enterprise usage. It is the market, we heard in Vienna, that has made mobile telecoms newly-vital to the global economy, as a foundational layer for digital change – which has made 5G more than just a go-faster data pipe.
Why? Because the industry, led by public safety agencies and sharp-minded tech suppliers, knocked on the door at 3GPP almost a decade ago (in 2014/15) to make the case, and set the requirements, for next-generation cellular to absorb and augment TETRA-style narrowband functions for national public safety engagements, and to serve a wider purpose – to give it a public purpose, almost, beyond fun-time comms for consumers.
From this point, and with constant input from the sector between times, 3GPP has exploded the same mission critical requirements into a developing 5G technology for all kinds of mission critical operations, for private enterprises in private networks in the broad Industry 4.0 space, through to public and state-led operations in secure public and hybrid public-private networks, as per the traditional remit of red and blue light public safety services.
Adrian Scrase, chief technology officer at ETSI and 3GPP, said in Vienna: “The public safety community has generated a whole new thread [in 3GPP]… which took TETRA into mobile broadband discussions – which was the spark to ignite a whole set of chain reactions… [so] now critical comms [provides] control for factories and industry… The whole concept… has expanded beyond fire and ambulance to all kinds of mission critical services.”
Scrase’s address at CCW in Vienna was one of a number of 3GPP presentations. (The conference agenda featured many repeat appearances, mostly about the challenge to migrate from narrowband to broadband, and, except for a handful of key private network providers on the show floor, the impression was the market remains self-contained, and a little alarmed by the challenge to join the global cellular market.) Which made Scrase’s explainer a useful one.
And the impression from him, as well as from another open-handed address from outgoing 3GPP chair Georg Mayer (which we will not, unfortunately, have time to report), is of a remarkable juggernaut workload, being undertaken by 3GPP members to cater to its new high maintenance community in critical communications. “What is keeping 3GPP awake right now is Release 18,” said Scrase, before going into its multifaceted work package for public safety, Industry 4.0, and sectors between.
In 2021, 3GPP took “more than 500 submissions from 1,200 people” at a starter session to set the bounds of the Release 18 project, he said. “Twelve hundred people discussing 500 contributions – and out of this came an agreed programme of work; a well balanced outcome, between civilians using phones for videos at home… and new industrial communities that want to leverage those capabilities.”
The exercise, at the time, was to prioritise the most urgent Release 18 work, he said. “Which was no easy task.” The balance to strike, he added, was between delivering a 5G feature set for “fee paying customers that want to use it now”, to keep the operator set sweet, and industrial “work that will take 10 years”. He said: “But if you don’t start, you never deliver… What came out was a balanced outcome, drawing equity between all these parties.”
He listed a number of work items, in Releases 17 and 18, that work as early fodder for mission critical operations, available as they are frozen and commercialised in the next five years. But the point, with all of them, is they are geared for a whole bunch of industrial sectors, sprung by both private and public network infrastructure, and show the kind of “joined-up thinking” that will make short(er) work of an intense load.
In this way, Scrases talked, generally, about ultra-reliable low-latency (URLLC) style Release-18 capabilities that will deliver real-time end-to-end control over life/mission/business-critical systems in factories and plants, for example – so an industrial stop button works to halt a mis-fire or a catastrophe responds instantaneously (“in milliseconds, and not five seconds”), and so factories can be reconfigured in smarter fashion (to avoid shutting them for “two weeks”).
Both ways, there is a clear upside in terms of safety and productivity, he noted. He also referenced 3GPP work on 5G for augmented reality (AR) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, drones) to provide remote assistance in industrial settings. He talked about ongoing work to define “network resources” to deliver the former, and develop control mechanisms (“to authenticate, operate, and revoke the right to fly”) to make-viable the latter.
He also referenced AI-analytics to bring smart controls to 5G base stations, to reduce energy usage in downtimes (as 5G reduces it in user applications), and reduced-capability (RedCap) functionality to serve the massive IoT market, as a “sweet spot” between low-end senor apps on NB-IoT and high-end ones on 5G. He described RedCap as a “stripped down version of 5G – for stripped down devices and reduced energy consumption… which will be very good for mission critical… probes and sensors”.
More interestingly, in ways, Scrase also discussed the broader discipline to make a technology standard, and the specific challenges with 5G. The best laid schemes…, he said; especially with 10-year development cycles, and even more with an ever-faster moving tech market. “It is likely things will make you rethink your plans,” he said, referencing the oft-referenced tale of Uber, which went from a “handful of cars to launching on the stock market” over a period of six months in 2010, and “changed the taxi industry forever”.
But 3GPP has adapted, he implied, and brought flexibility to its game. He also referenced the Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea in 2014, which saw 300 deaths, caused by both human error and comms failure, and saw 3GPP write a study that has, since, equipped maritime crews with LTE/IoT-connected, cloud-monitored life jackets, and, more recently, to broader integration with internal private LTE/5G port operations and external emergency services.
The other big factor is, of course, geopolitics. “There is nothing much we can do,” he said. “Because it is driven by world events, political events; it tends to be governments declaring geopolitical angles.” The effect is that governments are distracted and political cooperation is choked. The impression, already, is the 5G standardisation process is becoming unstuck as a global endeavour as a consequence.
“You have the feeling there is not the cooperation that there was before. These tensions are not helpful when you are trying to design a single standard for global use. And in 3G and 4G, we never got that single global standard – there were variations depending on where you were in the world. The US had two flavours; China had two. So it has taken five generations to get to a single global standard,” he explained.
“Which is so much better for [consumer and industrial] users because it brings costs down. If you have two tech streams, and two teams of engineers and two teams of designers, it is hugely expensive. Which is obvious, but it is so difficult to achieve. Will we be able to achieve it for 6G? It is looking very doubtful, if you consider all the military tensions. My take is that it is getting a little worse. All we can, down at an engineering level, is… somehow… [our] influence political masters to understand how difficult it will be for industry if there is fragmentation at standard level.”
He had a final warning about open standards in critical-grade 5G networks, as well. “As time goes by, we are using more and more open source and open type solutions and systems. Which is not a bad thing. But it means we need to behave slightly differently… [and] pay a lot more attention to security threats, to make sure that components developed elsewhere are safe when they are brought together… So we need to call on standards bodies to make sure… to develop systems that are inherently secure.”