Corning and Verizon set up 5G factory testbed

One of the industry-focused partnerships which Verizon showcased in Los Angeles was a project with one of its fiber suppliers, Corning, to test 5G in its own manufacturing plants.

Corning’s SVP of technology, Claudio Mazzali, told the conference that his firm planned to use 5G in its factory in Hickory, North Carolina, for three use cases:

  • autonomous vehicles, such as robot forklifts
  • sensors for asset tracking and management, and to monitor the health and safety of employees
  • video surveillance for preventative maintenance and safety, harnessing 5G speeds and edge computing

“I think you start to see the transformation only when you’re in the middle of it,” said Mazzali, pointing out that many factories have severe RF coverage issues. Installing indoor 5G will enable Corning to test applications that could then be applied to its other plants, but also allow Verizon to understand use cases that could be important for other customers in the sector. “We’re building this as a very dynamic testbed,” he added.

The testbed will be based on Intel’s FlexRAN Reference Software Architecture, which will support virtualized indoor RANs from Corning’s small cell unit (the company acquired an enterprise small cell pioneer, Spidercloud). The virtual network platform is still under development, but will be commercially available in 2020, though Corning has already demonstrated it for select customers. Its effort is not exclusive to Verizon, though this is the first testbed – it is currently working with all the major US carriers, with the aim of offering the platform to their manufacturing customers.

Tami Erwin, CEO of Verizon Business Group, said the testbed would focus on the promise of the next industrial revolution, “enabling massive steps forward in robotics and automation that will transform supply chain management and create smarter and more efficient factories”.

Verizon has an agreement with Corning to buy 12.5m miles of fiber a year between 2017 and 2020, for a total of $1bn. The telco recently said it is now deploying 1,400 miles of fiber a month to support xHaul for its 5G build-out.

As well as Spidercloud, Corning other areas of cellular enterprise expertise, including SD-WAN and massive distributed antenna systems (DAS). Now it is working to make its portfolio support 5G and virtualized architectures.

The components of the platform include second-generation Intel Xeon Scalable processors; Intel FlexRAN 5G and 4G Reference Software; FPGA Programmable Acceleration Card N3000; and 10/25/40Gb Intel Ethernet 700 Series Network. The platform will support a range of spectrum bands, including CBRS and FirstNet Band 14 for AT&T specifically; as well as most sub-6 GHz and millimeter wave options. It will also be interoperable with existing Corning 4G systems.

It is compatible with third party capacity sources, so can accept signals from Corning basebands or enterprise or carrier-provided basebands. Michelle Engarto, VP of wireless products at Corning, said: “Corning has the only signal source that’s already been approved by the major carriers, so we’re able to get much quicker approvals, install in-building cellular systems, and light them up much more quickly than our competitors.”

She added, referring to the barriers to enterprise deployments in-building: “For brownfields it’s particularly tough because it can be really expensive. The enterprises aren’t really keen on doing that unless there’s a really good value proposition, which we believe 5G will help…because there will be capabilities provided by 5G technology that aren’t available today with 3G, 4G and certainly not with copper networks.”