China Mobile is wise to focus on edge and therefore fairly constrained locations for its first steps into network slicing – the allocation of network resources to specific applications or customers. Many of the most-vaunted applications for 5G, especially in Industrial IoT and vehicular services, will not work until there is truly ubiquitous coverage, and that is still years away for all but the smallest, densest countries (such as Singapore).
Some 5G industrial applications are clearly localized, such as those for smart cities or a specific manufacturing complex, but many of the services where 5G is most meaningful – as opposed to WiFi or wireline – are inherently mobile and wide area, drawing on the unique qualities of a cellular network.
And even advanced 5G countries, especially large ones like the USA and China, currently lack anything close to the coverage required. According to a recent study by consultancy PwC, as of July, less than 1% of the USA was covered by 5G and this will not have reached 10% before 2021. A wide area IoT or vehicular application could require coverage closer to 90% of geography, within a state or even nationally, including locations that are often poorest served, such as the sides of highways.
So telcos eyeing the industrial opportunity in terms of 5G, IoT or private networks have to think locally first, which is partly why factories have been so popular in early telco trials. German incumbent Deutsche Telekom has even more incentive to focus on manufacturing because its country is a major industrial base, but one where the MNO’s role is under some threat since spectrum was allocated to the industries themselves for 5G purposes.
Looking to defend its role in that market, DT has been involved in many tests and trials in industrial environments. “Our development of a complete 5G ecosystem for industry will accelerate the pace of digitization in industry,” said Claudia Nemat, board member for technology and innovation at DT. “This will strengthen Germany’s position in global competition.”
The telco has partnerships in this area with several vendors including Ericsson and Nokia In August it announced a new alliance with Ericsson to support 5G and IoT services on industrial campuses. As part of that effort, the two companies are working with guided vehicle company EK Automation, based near Hamburg (where DT will activate 5G this autumn), as well as Japanese optical specialist Konica Minolta, and Swiss automation company, Endress+Hauser. This group are developing use cases and technologies for industrial automated vehicles and transport robots, which would operate within a campus or factory complex – a more defined geographical location than supporting vehicles that go out on the public road.
Matthias Altendorf, CEO of the Endress+Hauser group, said: “The 5G campus networks open a second signal path that is independent of the control system. This enables us to link value chains more closely across company boundaries and make industrial processes more efficient.”
The partners are equipping EK’s transport robots with 3D cameras to support integrated 3D obstacle detection with dynamic route planning enabled from the DT Edge Cloud. The transport robot sends the 3D camera images to the edge cloud via 5G, for analysis and decision support in near-real time, enabling the vehicle to avoid obstacles.
Also in Germany, Ericsson has opened a Center of Excellence at its Eurolab R&D site in Aachen, focused on “5G-networked industry”. Jan-Peter Meyer-Kahlen, head of the unit, said: “This not only strengthens Germany as an industrial location, but also creates a starting point for the demands of surrounding European industry.”
The Center will focus on incorporating the requirements of industries into product development, and will offer western European operators a facility for testing and demonstrating systems for customers and partners.