Special Report: Private and neutral host industrial networks

Support for industrial cellular will help to identify the 5G leaders

  • When edge cloud enters the 5G landscape, neutral host will be even more important
  • Until industrial players can secure spectrum, hi-tech initiatives will exclude 5G
  • Some MNOs take a lead with slicing, others may be pre-empted by WiFi 6

The 5G industry is a deeply divided one. It is beset by architectural differences – a quick radio upgrade, or a full transformation to cloud-native? It has become a focus for political rivalries both international (is the USA or China in the lead in terms of 5G deployment?) and industrial (will traditional vendors retain their lock-in, or will there be a new open ecosystem?)

Most important of all, though, are the divisions over the 5G business model. Established operators are split. Some see 5G as a way to enhance their existing services, adding virtual reality and 8K video to their consumer offerings (but usually failing to understand whether they can charge extra for those improvements). Others expect to justify their investment in 5G by generating new revenue streams in the enterprise and IoT sectors, though most acknowledge they have yet to firm up the profit model for these emerging use cases, many of which will be best enabled by future releases of the 5G standards, with support for low latency and high availability.

And while established MNOs try to make a strong business case for industrial 5G services, other players are looking to leapfrog them into this space. The interest in private cellular networks – which would be optimized for the requirements of a particular sector, and would be run by the enterprise itself or a specialized service provider – was running high at this year’s Mobile World Congress, with the main focus on LTE.

The combination of 5G’s more diverse capabilities; enterprise control of the quality and security of their connectivity within their sites; and providers with knowledge of a particular sector’s requirements, could help to fulfil some of the promises of 5G – the promises of socio-economic impact that have led governments around the world to set out 5G strategies, which risk being derailed if all the 5G services remain in the hands of the MNOs.

Of course, MNOs are the best at building out nationwide networks and supporting mobile broadband services for the whole population. But they have successively failed to make a strong case to deploy high quality cellular networks inside enterprise buildings, and so have – with a few exceptions – remained outside the strategic inner circle of enterprise providers.

Yet they also remain hostile to sharing networks or spectrum in order to support more specialized service providers which can build a profit model around localized, mainly indoor, enterprise networks. That has driven private network providers towards shared spectrum (such as CBRS in the USA, or MulteFire in the 5 GHz band); or to battle for licensed spectrum that would be assigned to industrial usage, either with allocations for particular sectors, or through a neutral host model.

There are plenty of organizations which are looking to drive private cellular networks and so support new 5G-enabled processes. Public utilities, manufacturing firms, aircraft makers and others believe they can enhance their operations by harnessing 5G, but they also believe they need control over the QoS and optimization of those networks, to ensure they get the desired results. They are not sure MNOs will prioritize their needs, when those operators need to protect their core business in consumer broadband.

In the future, network slicing may address the challenge of delivering the right connectivity for each individual enterprise, even though each one has different requirements of data rates, latency, security and so on. For now, many industries believe they need their own spectrum, or access to that of the MNOs.

Some regulators are acknowledging this. Germany has been the most assertive in setting aside spectrum for industrial use cases, but others, like the UK’s Ofcom, are considering a similar move in future auctions. Others are relying on shared spectrum to fulfil the requirements of enterprise and IoT 5G (as in the USA), or are denying the need for private networks at all (France). We believe the USA’s CBRS experiment, however flawed and over-complex, is setting important precedents which will be emulated elsewhere; while Germany’s bold support for industrial spectrum will help that country to boast more wide-ranging 5G impacts, in a few years’ time, than the nations which have clung to the old exclusive licensing model.

No enterprise spectrum in France; Chinese MNOs push IIoT slices

Many of Europe’s operators remain deeply hostile to the idea of private networks or industrial spectrum, while making few plans to support the specific needs of enterprises – indoor coverage, high reliability and so on – themselves. Regulators are taking different views on the matter.

While Germany’s regulator, the Bundesnetzagentur, has risked the wrath of its MNOs by setting aside some 3.7 GHz spectrum for the country’s powerful manufacturing and automotive sector, to support Industrie 4.0 services, its equivalent in France, ARCEP, says it sees no demand for such a move.

Given the difficulty that many operators have in making a strong business case for optimized networks for demanding industrial applications, especially in-building, we believe regulatory intervention or encouragement will be necessary in many countries, to achieve the goals for economic impact and digital transformation, which many governments have set out for 5G. Ideally, though, the telcos would find a way to support the needs of industrial and IoT users themselves, either directly or through a shared approach. In some countries – though rarely European ones – a few operators are engaging in significant joint initiatives with vertical market players, to try to prove a mutually beneficial business case.

It is to be hoped that these efforts, in sectors as critical as smart grid, will encourage the others, but in the meantime, the hopes of many industries are still with the regulators as the 5G auctions gather pace round the world.

German manufacturers announce plans for 5G:

With 100 MHz of midband spectrum due to be sold to industrial groups, or their service providers, the likely recipients are already starting to announce their plans. According to local media reports, carmaker Volkswagen will start building its own 5G networks in German plants next year and has already launched a tender to find its supplier. “We will equip the factories from 2020 onwards,” a spokesperson said.

The same report indicates that two fellow auto giants, Daimler and BMW, are also interested in applying for the spectrum and developing their own factory networks, while other industrial groups including Siemens, Bosch, Airbus and BASF are looking for more 5G “autonomy”. Siemens and Bosch have installed 5G test networks in some plants already.

Such companies may provide welcome sources of new revenues for 5G equipment vendors, at least those – like Nokia and Huawei, but not Ericsson – which are now selling some kit directly to enterprises, rather than via telcos only.

France denies there is demand for industrial spectrum:

They won’t have the same comfort in France, where Agnes Pannier-Runacher, secretary of state to the minister of economy and finance, told the media there was no demand for private 5G spectrum among industrial firms. Arcep echoed the view and will confine the upcoming 5G auction to four nationwide exclusive licences, which will almost certainly be affordable only by the four MNOs – and would certainly not suit the requirements of vertical sectors, which usually want localized, rather than national, spectrum.

Despite the presence of a sizeable industrial and automotive sector in France, with major players like Airbus, PSA Groupe and Renault, Pannier-Runacher told Le Monde that there was “not yet a very clear demand from industrialists”, and that dividing spectrum between too many entities “can cause problems in its management and cause interference”.

Arcep is expected to draw up the rules for the next midband auction this summer.

Chinese and Japanese MNOs get close to utilities:

In China, Japan and the USA, there are more signs of cooperation between heavy industry and the telcos, without the need for the regulator to assign private airwaves. We recently reported on the joint trials being run in Tokyo by three of the four MNOs plus a power utility, in which all the partners will co-invest in 5G networks, the industrial company providing fiber and power in return for a network in which its needs will be prioritized.

This is the latest in a series of cooperations between MNOs and utilities, railways and other industrial players in the country.

In China, the most dramatic example was when several industrial and web giants took stakes in China Unicom, putting the MNO on a firmer financial footing and helping it to afford its proposed 5G build-out, in return for influencing how that network is tailored for their needs.

But there are other collaborations in the country, especially with the utilities sector. China Telecom is the most active of the three operators in expanding revenues in the enterprise, and in pushing 5G for vertical market services.

It recently worked with the Chinese State Grid (SGCC) on a trial based on Huawei equipment, which created a network slice to manage a live power grid. The test took place in a real life grid environment in Nanjing, and aimed to evaluate the workings of slicing based on the 5G Standalone specifications with the 5G core.

Some of the tasks targeted by the trial include millisecond-level precise power load control and bidirectional communication between grids and end users. Tests were conducted indoors and outdoors, and the network achieved an average of 35 ms end-to-end latency, which the telco said is sufficient for these mission critical requirements.

“This successful test is a breakthrough for SA networks in the 5G vertical market,” Zhan Mingfei, deputy general manager of China Telecom’s government and enterprise unit, said.

“5G electricity slicing can provide important communications system assurance to keep up with new power grid service requirements, service models, and operation modes,” added Gao Shengyu, deputy GM of SGCC’s Nanjing Power Supply Company, saying the trials were part of a project to build an ‘Internet of Energy’ for the electricity sector, which has been ongoing since 2017.

AT&T also looking at smart grid as early slicing target:

On the other side of the world, AT&T and Nokia have been working on private networks for the smart grid in the USA for three years. The aim was to create a network optimized for the utilities’ requirements and rent capacity or slices to individual energy providers, though no customers have yet been announced.

The telco is offering its unpaired 2.3 GHz WCS C and D Blocks of spectrum to utilities and others to support their private LTE, and future 5G, networks. They could build these themselves or work with Nokia. “Utilities will have continuity they can count on for their critical grid applications. And, they’ll have a network that can evolve with the distribution grid of the future,” AT&T argued when it first discussed the initiative in 2016, though later that year it had to obtain a waiver of the FCC’s build-out mandates for WCS, saying it would not be able to deploy its smart grid system sufficiently broadly to meet the deadlines.

The FCC said at the time that the waiver would enable AT&T “to deploy a beneficial, non-interfering smart grid network to a variety of utility companies nationwide, making efficient use of challenging spectrum blocks. This will be of benefit to the millions of end user customers served by those utilities across the country.”

Edge+5G promises much, but needs neutral hosts, such as towercos

One of the most promising enablers of the specialized mobile networks that many industries want is to combine optimized connectivity with edge computing. A localized mobile network to cover the enterprise’s locations, with its own local core and its own edge compute and storage resources, can support the organization’s specific requirements effectively.

It can be integrated with corporate networks, security systems and cloud platforms while still bringing the benefits of 5G – such as secure, low latency, high quality communications even for people or objects that need to move around. Including edge nodes greatly increases the number and value of use cases that the 5G links can support within the buildings (or an outdoor enterprise area such as a railway line, farm or campus). Local processing enables 5G to deliver on promises such as very low latency or high security, which would be diluted if data had to go to the central cloud.

Who will deploy the edge-integrated sub-nets?

The challenge in making these localized sub-nets a reality is the question of who will deploy, manage and monetize them. Mobile operators should be the obvious candidates since they have most of the spectrum and the users will be roaming onto their public networks once they are out of range of their enterprise. But as we have analyzed many times, MNOs have a poor track record of taking a strategy role in industrial and indoor environments, and most are saying they are still finding it hard to make a compelling business case for changing that habit now.

Even if MNOs are interested, would they deploy and manage the edge nodes as well as the connectivity, or leave that to the enterprise or its integrators? If the latter, would the MNO just be a dumb pipe and how well would the two elements be integrated to support edge-based services optimally?

There are clear advantages to a single entity having charge of the network and the edge infrastructure and applications – for the efficiency and flexibility of the platform, especially if it has to adapt to many changes in enterprise needs; but also to offer a bigger monetization opportunity to attract service providers to invest in these systems.

ome large enterprises may want to deploy for themselves, with the connectivity element harnessing shared spectrum, spectrum leased from MNOs, or their own licences (see previous item). But most companies, and their integrators, will lack the expertise to do both cellular and edge compute. A more attractive option for most will be to entrust the edge+cellular infrastructure, security, management and services enablement to a third party, allowing their own teams, or their specialist service providers, to use the resulting platform to support their applications.

Neutral hosts needed to push the model to its potential:

This opportunity will attract some MNOs to take the plunge into the enterprise and the industrial IoT, since the growing range of applications and the integration of edge will improve the potential revenue upside.

But the real driver will be for neutral host providers, which will be able to deploy both connectivity and edge computing at scale, with a common platform to be rolled out to cities, enterprises and other organizations. That will then be able to support many service providers – which could include MNOs – in order to help them deliver their offerings more effectively in indoor environments by shielding them from the complexities of the underlying technologies, and from issues such as multi-operator support, edge/packet core integration or cellular network optimization.

Neutral hosts may be many types of companies in future. Where the edge nodes and private networks are indoors and on-premises, they may be start-ups set up for the purpose; cloud providers; wholesale or fixed network operators; enterprise integrators, and others.

But not all these platforms will be indoors. Where they are mainly outdoors (or in public spaces like malls) they may support larger areas of coverage which can be leveraged by many enterprises for indoor/outdoor applications (as well as by consumers). Cities, railways and remote areas underserved by the MNOs (such as farms, industrial plants and other places without consumers) are all ripe for the edge/neutral host network/private core combination.

In outdoor/indoor environments, towercos have a role:

One of the most likely categories to pursue this opportunity is the towerco sector, since these companies already have the established base in the mobile industry, and the neutral host approach, but are looking for new sources of growth as MNOs consolidate.

Tower analysts at Wells Fargo wrote in a recent client note: “In our view the towers are in a position to play a very significant role in this developing theme. The base of the tower is a logical place for a micro edge data center given the power and fiber to the location as well as the security in place. We look for more developments around this theme to come in 2019.”

Crown Castle has been the cheerleader for expanding its business model in new directions, investing heavily in small cells and fiber, and starting to dip its toe into edge data centers (which it can collocate with its cell sites).

American Tower makes first step towards the edge:

Now it seems that its arch-rival in the US market, American Tower – which has been far more sceptical of new business models, and has instead looked to geographical expansion for growth – is starting to follow suit. It has made its first acquisition in the data center market, buying the ColoATL data center in Atlanta, Georgia.

While American Tower is the world’s largest wireless infrastructure owner, with over 170,000 tower sites in 17 countries (57,000 in the USA), it has not, to date, made a move comparable to Crown Castle’s investment in neutral host edge platform provider has partnered with Crown to locate some of its micro data centers at the base of towers, though it also works with other, non-tower partners; and another US towerco, SBA, has a similar deal with another edge infrastructure start-up, Packet (see below).

But on a quarterly earnings call in October, CEO James Taiclet said American Tower conducted an “ongoing evaluation of edge compute solutions at our tower sites”. He added:  “We are currently engaged in discussions with players in numerous industries that may ultimately be edge compute tenants and expect to further explore the potential long term opportunity going forward, noting that the tower sites can act as convergence points for the RAN, cloud services, the IoT and enterprise networks.

Now, ColoATL may give American Tower its first step into edge compute services, bringing 26,000 square feet of colocation space as its dowry. It currently offers carrier-neutral colocation and interconnection services and has six or more deals with telcos and technology firms for interconnection services. Expanding on this model could see the towerco starting to move into territory occupied by cloud infrastructure providers like Equinix.

Steve Vondran, president of American Tower’s US tower division, insisted the purchase should not be taken as a sign that the firm has committed, as yet, to a “wider strategic shift”, though he did say it would enable the company to test the linkages between wireless connectivity, integrated edge computing and edge caching.

Vondran added: “ColoATL is a small, strategically located data center with sufficient space and power to enable us to work with the wider ecosystem as we drive our innovation efforts.” But, as stated above, American Tower is behind its rivals in exploring edge computing in earnest, and with it, the chance to enable a new generation of neutral host, IoT and private or semi-private networks.

Edge start-ups Packet and Vapor get close to towercos:

Crown Castle has been working with, and SBA has a partnership with Packet. Last year, Packet broke ground on its first edge data center location in Boston, positioned at the base of an SBA cell tower. Clay Moran, director of strategy at SBA, said at the time that the site was “the first of what we expect will be many sites in our extensive portfolio to become distributed network connectivity points for emerging 5G and edge computing applications”.

Jeff Stoops, the CEO of SBA, was discussing the potential to add edge capabilities, and revenues, to the firm’s real estate holdings, on a recent earnings call. “We continue to work on initial prototype mobile edge computing locations built around our existing property locations,” he said. “It’s still very early in the development of these solutions. But we believe we have a distinct advantage with the quality locations we are targeting and we are excited about the potential for this additional business line down the road.”

Packet raised $25m in a second round of funding in September, to help build 50 new edge sites. It is currently working on the first three, though they are not all with SBA – in fact, the other two are on Crown Castle sites in Chicago, which is also the first city targeted by Vapor IO. Packet says it will have started deployment of 10 edge sites before year end and its medium term goal is to have 50 in the USA.

Packet was founded in 2014 and provides cloud infrastructure, automation and management in its own locations and on customer premises, on customer-specified and specialist hardware. Its new funding will help it move, like Vapor IO, into deploying locations specifically as edge data centers. It provides a choice of Layer 2/3 networking and will support wireless connectivity soon, when it has developed virtualized packet core capabilities.

Meanwhile, also raised new funds in September last year, in a third round reportedly worth about $100m. It sourced its latest round through private equity, rather than venture capital, and the financing was led by Berkshire Partners with participation from Crown Castle. The new money also marked a change of relationship with Crown Castle. Previously, Crown provided colocation services to clients using Vapor’s edge technology, which the start-up offered as a managed service. Now, Vapor has acquired the assets which were built as part of that Crown project (an effort codenamed Volutus), and has become the direct colocation service provider.

The assets include the Vapor Chamber, a cylindrical mini-data center housed in the Vapor Edge Module, which provides the security, infrastructure and shelter requirements. Then there is Synse, the telemetry system for remote management of the edge data center; and other software for managing data center infrastructure and connectivity.

Together with Crown, Vapor has so far built two sites in Chicago, with three more planned in that city, and next year, it aims to deploy in 13 more locations across multiple cities, reaching over 100 locations by 2020. In each metro, it will build several locations and interconnect them to form a virtualized, city-wide data center to minimize latency for customer applications. Vapor IO will sell colocation space in these edge sites – as Equinix and others do in larger data centers worldwide – and the sites can also support network peering.

Digital Bridge puts together an infrastructure portfolio:

Another US telecoms infrastructure operator, Vertical Bridge, is also taking an interest in edge compute, if a more cautious one than Crown Castle’s. It recently announced a partnership with DataBank, which provides data center, cloud and interconnectivity services, to build micro data centers on its cell tower and broadcast sites and in 6,000 buildings to which it has exclusive rights.

The two companies have the same parent – Digital Bridge Holdings – which also owns ExteNet, a neutral host operator in small cells; as well as core data center firm Vantage. The potential for an integrated edge/connectivity neutral host portfolio is clear, and according to Bernard Borghei, EVP of operations at Vertical Bridge, it will find a ready market among telcos and content owners, which are already familiar organizations in the company’s existing broadcast and wireless value chains.

“We are the owners of the largest portfolio of broadcast towers in the country and the broadcast sites come with a lot of land,” he told Light Reading. “All of our sites have their LTE deployment and through the radio stations that operate on them, we have fiber. There is power available; there is land, there is fiber, there is water for a cooling system. So we started talking to DataBank and decided we would be able to use our sites and deploy these modular, scalable edge micro data centers right at the edge of the network.”

Vertical Bridge also has rights to over 6,500 buildings in the USA for rooftop and in-building deployments, and believes that will help it pursue business in edge compute/aggregation for virtualized RAN, content distribution and more. MNOs are looking for in-building locations to house their virtualized baseband units for vRAN in urban areas, said Borghei.

Two open manufacturing initiatives launch, but where was 5G?

At the start of this month, the Hannover Messe trade show took place in Germany. It is traditionally an event devoted to traditional industries such as manufacturing, but in recent years it has increasingly featured telecoms platforms, and that has intensified with 5G and its promises of supporting emerging enterprise and IoT services. At the 2019 summit, there was plenty of talk about the ongoing German 5G spectrum auctions, in which some airwaves had been earmarked for Industrie 4.0 usage.

But as two open manufacturing platforms were launched to support the digitalisation of this industry’s complex processes, where was 5G?

To listen to the 5G industry, it would appear that Industrie 4.0 will be one of the driving business cases for the new cellular connectivity. But in Hannover, dominated by the manufacturing industry and not by telecoms, 5G was scarcely mentioned. This indicates

that the mobile industry will need to have a louder and more coherent voice, if it is to influence the manufacturing sector to any real extent in the coming years.

Manufacturers do use wireless connectivity of course, though in the factory environment, sealed off from outside interference, WiFi suffices for many purposes. There are use cases which do look well-suited to 5G, notably migrating from wired robots to mobile ones, or automated vehicles, which can move outdoors among the factory buildings. However, these did not seem to be the first priority for the companies pushing the new platforms in Hannover. 5G was mentioned in passing, while other buzzwords – IoT, blockchain, edge computing and, of course, artificial intelligence (AI) were constant topics of conversation.

Open Industry 4.0 Alliance:

The first of the new platforms is the Open Industry 4.0 Alliance, which claims to be creating an open ecosystem for the digital transformation of manufacturing plants, and whose core KPI is to get 80% of the machines in a smart factory to speak the same language. The second is the Open Manufacturing Platform (OMP), launched by Microsoft and the BMW Group, whose stated objective is to be a “new initiative to drive open industrial IoT development and to help grow a community to build future Industry 4.0 solutions”.

The key goals of both are to transfer lessons from the IT and cloud worlds into the manufacturing environment, which has been slow to adopt them, despite its advanced adoption of automation thanks to the 1980s initiatives in robotics and Just in Time manufacturing. Those were heavily driven by Japan, while in the next era of digital automation, much of the impetus is coming from Germany’s Industrie 4.0 initiatives, as well as from China and the USA. The prerequisites for the new generation of factories, warehouses and docks will be open, interoperable and de-siloed IT systems.

The Open Industry 4.0 Alliance was founded by organizations in the mechanical engineering, industrial automation and software industries, with no mention of telcos. Founding members include Beckhoff, Endress+Hauser Group, Hilscher, ifm, KUKA, Multivac and SAP.

The Alliance’s putative platform is being kicked off with four modules plus an associated service offering. The modules are:

  • Device Connectivity, which establishes the connection to the machines and sensors.
  • Edge, the controlling node for all the functions in the factory.
  • Operator Cloud, the central node, supporting all enterprise-centric functions and applications via an open layer.
  • Cloud Central, which enables the bidirectional exchange of data between companies, such as master data and measurement data from calibrations, and technical documentation.

While SAP, the German enterprise software company, has an influential position, supporting open, multivendor systems, but of course inserting its own solutions into the collaborative processes that will underpin inter-company manufacturing systems, warehouse management and plant maintenance.

The Open Manufacturing Platform:

Microsoft is taking the same role in the Open Manufacturing Platform, which says it will break down siloes to improve profitability and productivity with interoperable systems – built on its Azure cloud platform. The OMP also aims to accelerate Industrial IoT developments in automotive and other manufacturing industries.

The OMP aims to provide its community members with a reference architecture made up of open source components based on open industrial standards and an open data model. This should lead to standard models that enable big data analytics and machine  across multivendor systems.

BMW will contribute initial use cases, based on its own experience of supporting over 3,000 machines, robots and autonomous transport systems with its Azure-based IoT platform.

BMW’s processes have now effectively been turned into 15 reference designs, which could be used by other members of the OMP. Microsoft said the aim is to sign up 4-6 new members this year. These members will contribute similar designs in future to create a multi-faceted platform – though one that, for now at least, is tied to Azure. This highlights how cloud providers aim to be the new lock-in in the 5G era, as companies move on from proprietary appliances and applications.

“Microsoft is joining forces with the BMW Group to transform digital production efficiency across the industry,” said Scott Guthrie, EVP of Microsoft’s Cloud + AI Group. “Our commitment to building an open community will create new opportunities for collaboration across the entire manufacturing value chain.”

Asked about 5G, both groups said next generation connectivity would be important for some IIoT and robotics applications, once its low latency, high security credentials are fully established.

However, there was a strong sense that wireless would just be an enabler of the connected industrial plant, rather than central to its success, which would come from open data models and, in particular, edge computing.

Even the GE-driven Industrial Internet initiative (now merged with the OpenFog Alliance, which is setting standards for the edge) had a telco member (AT&T) when it was formed, though the operator has since dropped off its list of top-level members.

That may reflect AT&T’s push to drive its own open edge platforms via the Linux Foundation and its own Akraino effort. But it is also a sign of how mobile connections, and their operators, are being sidelined in the open manufacturing world, which does not bode well for the MNO’s place in the Industrial IoT value chain, even when that eventually marries up with 5G.

Boeing argues that aircraft should be treated as indoor spaces in 6 GHz

In-aircraft connectivity has always been a challenging use case, but constant access to data and email is becoming a requirement for passengers and a differentiator for airlines. Now Boeing is arguing that aeroplanes should be defined as indoor spaces to permit the use of unlicensed spectrum.

It has submitted a filing with the US regulator, the FCC, to make its argument, focusing on the 6 GHz band, which is being opened up for licence-exempt usage in the USA and some other areas.

It described a meeting with the FCC “to discuss the technical justifications for treating the inside of large commercial aircraft as being equivalent to indoor locations for purposes of the Commission’s rules for unlicensed devices operating in the 6 GHz band,” General Counsel Bruce Olcott wrote in the filing.

The aircraft manufacturer argues that the fuselage of a plane provides radio signal attenuation levels, blocking the signal, of at least 17.3dB on average in the 6 GHz band – about the same as many buildings.

Boeing also points out that the Federal Aviation Administration has banned the use of wireless communications below 10,000 feet. Therefore, any ground operations using the 6 GHz spectrum will not suffer from interference from the in-flight systems, as the aircraft will be well out of their range when cruising at about 38,000 feet.

However, Boeing also says that, since most airports are remote from cities, and because the fuselage will block any signals inside the plane, airlines should be allowed to support WiFi in 6 GHz, even when the aircraft is stationary.

The filing has been sparked by the FCC’s current consultation on rule changes for the 6 GHz band, which are being opposed, in some of their aspects, by AT&T and other telcos, which want stronger protection to be retained for broadband and satellite operations.

In October, the FCC voted to expand the 6 GHz band with 1,200 MHz of additional spectrum available for next generation WiFi devices. The agency said interference between prior and future devices would be minimized because WiFi will usually operate indoors at these higher frequencies – hence the importance of Boeing’s filing. There is also discussion of a spectrum access system (SAS), like that used to protect incumbents and priority licence holders in the shared 3.5 GHz CBRS band, for 6 GHz.

WiFi 6 puts in its own bid to support private enterprise wireless networks

It’s not just 5G which has its eyes on growth from industrial and enterprise use cases. The WiFi community has made some inroads into these markets in the past, usually in environments, such as factories, where a network can be planned and optimized to enterprise standards and fully protected, by the building walls and by strict controls on employees’ devices, from interference from other signals. However, with WiFi 6, which some believe to be equivalent to 5G in many capabilities, the technology’s supporters hope it will find its way into a far wider range of mission critical systems.

The Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), the trade association for WiFi service providers, has argued forcefully that WiFi 6 (based on the upcoming 802.11ax standards) should be considered part of the wider 5G landscape, as it has made significant advances in data rate and support for low latency and massive device density. Now, the Alliance has announced the first industrial IoT trial as part of its WiFi 6 program, working with Mettis Aerospace, a manufacturer of components for the aerospace and defense sectors, including Airbus and Boeing.

Mettis will work with WBA members – including BT, Boingo, Broadcom, BSG Wireless, CableLabs, Cisco, HPE Aruba and Intel – to test several use cases on a WiFi 6 network at its 27-acre facility in the UK’s West Midlands region. The trial will involve augmented reality, real time monitoring of equipment and other applications designed to test the capabilities of the network significantly, in a network environment designed to digitize Mettis’ production line.

The effort is part of one of the UK’s six government-funded 5G Testbeds, led by the Worcestershire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and focused on the use of next generation wireless connectivity in manufacturing environments. The Mettis Aerospace plant is challenging for wireless because of its large area and the presence of industrial radio interference; plus it needs a variety of applications with different network demands, from high bandwidth to low latency to mission critical reliability.

Use cases under consideration include multi stream live video monitoring; real time energy monitoring; ultra-reliable low latency communications with sensors on critical systems and augmented reality for trouble shooting.

Tiago Rodrigues, general manager of the WBA, said: “We’re delighted to be working with Mettis Aerospace and are grateful to the Worcestershire Local Enterprise Partnership for inviting us to collaborate with them to demonstrate the capabilities and promote the convergence of 5G and WiFi 6 in heterogeneous networks. This first trial will serve as an example to industrial manufacturers around the world who are embracing the move to ‘Industry 4.0’ about the capabilities to deliver transformation with WiFi 6.”

Of course, if WiFi 6 performs well in trials like this, it will be a potential headache for MNOs. They may be hesitant about industrial business cases, and about neutral host models, but if WiFi can fill the gap – with its inherently multi-operator, shared spectrum platform – they run the risk of helping to reduce the addressable market for 5G altogether.