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15 June 2021

Germany forges ahead in private 5G networks with 123 licences awarded

Germany continues to set the pace in the race to deploy private 5G networks that increase efficiency and deliver new enterprise applications, especially in the manufacturing sector. In a week when regulator Bundesnetzagentur announced that 123 spectrum licences for private 5G campus networks had been awarded, a €1bn wafer fab built by Bosch for automotive chips was officially opened by German chancellor Angela Merkel.

“The new Bosch wafer fab will boost our capacity in microelectronics. Microelectronics is the basis for nearly every promising technology, for applications of artificial intelligence, for quantum computing, and for automated and connected driving – which is also a Bosch specialty,” said Merkel. “The new wafer fab is the single largest investment in the company’s history. The very latest methods of data-driven continuous improvement in production make the Dresden plant a smart factory.”

Bosch was at pains to highlight the pivotal role that will be played by its private 5G network at the fab for automated production. Bosch has been arguably the greatest cheerleader for 5G private networks, which has been a mixed blessing for mobile operators. The company has consistently underlined its commitment to deployment of 5G across all its 250 factories worldwide without involvement of any operators.

In Germany Bosch has been working with Nokia, which has been more committed to bypassing its traditional operator customers in the private enterprise sector than its Nordic competitor Ericsson. Bosch went live in partnership with Nokia at its factory in Stuttgart-Feuerbach in November 2020, followed by another at its research campus in Renningen. It was among the very first to acquire a ‘vertical’ spectrum license from regulator BNetzA, to run factory operations in local chunks of the 3.7-3.8 GHz band in Germany.

The country’s automotive sector generally has been pushing ahead with private 5G networks. Apart from Bosch as the world’s biggest automotive parts maker, Audi, BMW, Daimler, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, are all among early deployers. The telecoms sector itself has also been quick on the draw, with LS Telcom, NTT Data, Telefónica, Deutsche Telekom’s T-Systems and Verizon Germany among those to deploy private 5G networks in the country, as well as Huawei on the vendor side. 5G spectrum licence holders in Germany also include universities and research organizations such as the Fraunhofer institutes.

Japan, as another major manufacturing nation, has also been pushing ahead with industrial 5G private networks, although not quite as fast as Germany. Fujitsu was first off in February 2020 when it was awarded a private provisional license by the Kanto Bureau of Telecommunications, followed by verification of the technology at its Shin-Kawasaki Technology Square office in Kawasaki.

Again, Nokia has been in the thick of things, working with local systems integrator NS Solutions (NSSOL) on various projects including deployment of an industrial-grade private wireless network at Toyota’s manufacturing design center in Fukuoka. NSSOL has been selected by Toyota Production Engineering Corporation (TPEC) to deploy an industrial-grade private wireless network at its manufacturing design center in Fukuoka, Japan. This began with LTE but was followed by upgrade to 5G across the company’s manufacturing sites for a variety of industrial IoT process control applications requiring ultra-low latency.

Japan as a whole has been focusing on private 5G through its Local 5G initiative in which entities such as enterprises or local governments can establish networks within a limited area, typically their own buildings or campus sites, to meet connectivity requirements of local communities or businesses. This began in December 2019 and has led to some license applications being given higher priority and staging of regional tests of Local 5G for development purposes, using combinations of different spectrum in different environments such as cities, rural areas and indoors.

Then in December 2020, Japan’s Radio Act and related regulations were amended to allow Local 5G to use the 28.2 – 28.3 GHz millimeter wave frequency band.

China is a unique case because it has the same motivation for industrial private networks but this has clashed with the strong state-driven momentum behind its four national carriers. This led to unusual resistance from within both the industrial and local government sector, since maintaining the hegemony of the monolithic state-run operators was felt to put the businesses at a disadvantage for internal deployment of 5G communications. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) agreed in mid-2020 to allow research into private networks.

The situation has still not been finally resolved, but the mood does seem to be swinging towards allowing deployment of independent private 5G networks. Among those signaling this direction has been Zhang Ping, academician of Chinese Academy of Engineering and professor of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications. He has been quoted various times over the last year expressing his view that the needs of industrial enterprises are too diverse to be met through the monolithic approach that has driven rapid roll out of commercial 5G services.

“In order to accelerate the integration of 5G technology and entity economy, we need to continuously dig deeper into the demand of industry scenario for information technology, combine enabling technologies like edge computing and artificial intelligence and develop wireless private networks and convergent networking through new ideas such as frequency coordination,” Ping said, quoted in the country’s Science and Technology daily.  “And this also requires an impressive platform to play a penetrating and leading role and empower thousands of industries.”

The USA is the other notable force behind 5G private network deployment for enterprises, some of which have deployed them already.  Availability of Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) in the 3.5 GHz to 3.7 GHz band has stimulated take-up there, with many initial roll-outs using LTE base stations for backhaul connectivity to their industrial premises, even if they are deploying 5G internally. Among early takers is agricultural equipment group John Deere, which has deployed private 5G networks at some of its manufacturing sites after spending around $500,000 on wireless licences at the CBS auction around September 2020.

So far operators are more likely to be involved in private 5G in the US than Germany in particular, but the sector poses challenges worldwide. Only around a quarter of all private cellular networks worldwide, including LTE as well as 5G, involve operators, and a smaller proportion in Germany. There may be all to play for, but operators need to make sure they are well established on the pitch.