Much of the attention on 5G has been on how fast you can download on your smartphone, but one big difference it has already made so far comes in the form of private 5G networks set up for business.
Instead of folks downloading large files at a cafe or playing virtual reality games on the go, think of sea ports and factories that use the new mobile technology to connect their cranes, robots and other smart sensors.
5G’s low latency, or near-zero lag, means that these machines can be controlled remotely with unmatched responsiveness.
A crane can be automated or controlled by a person sitting elsewhere instead of high up in a crane in a container port, for example.
Similarly, an automated guided vehicle (AGV), say, a load-bearing vehicle, can carry heavy items around a factory site without the risk of having humans operate them.
Instead of connecting to a public 5G network, these smart machines can be hooked up to a private one set up for the business itself. This not only improves privacy but also enables it to carefully manage the frequency spectrum.
It can use part of the 5G connectivity to support these working machines and another to link users to the Internet, for example, without one impacting on the other.
These are not just concepts. In one of the first private 5G networks, a Mercedes-Benz factory in Germany is using 5G to track products on an assembly line.
It connects all the machines, collecting large quantities of data with high-speed links while keeping that sensitive information within its own network. In other words, security is built in.
Separately, in Antwerp, Belgium, a private 5G network is enabling the city’s police and fire department to run apps that include automation, logistics, safety and security.
Mobile cameras deployed in the field by the police can be easily connected while real-time images and information from a site can be relayed to the fire department in an emergency.
The number of such private networks – including both 5G and 4G – will grow from around 500 in 2020 to 14,000 in 2025, according to research firm Analysys Mason. It expects the cumulative revenue to grow to US$9 billion in the five-year period.
The research firm also lays out three models in which such a private network may be rolled out at a business.
One way is to run a dedicated on-premise model with both the core and edge networks connected to a local radio site.
The other two involve linking up to an operator’s public network with components such as edge or radio networks residing in the public segment.
The good new is that many of these businesses won’t have to worry about running their own 5G networks, since they can be complex and unfamiliar.
New 5G players now offer managed services which promise uptime and connectivity, while taking the technical challenges away from businesses.
Last week, Japanese telecom operator and service provider NTT announced a private 5G network “as a service” offering. It would help set up and also manage such networks for businesses.
Touted as a “global first”, the offering promises to connect workers and devices on-site with the control, security and coverage expected from the mobile network.
Many of these private networks work with both open and licensed spectrum. In some countries such as Germany and Japan, part of the airwaves have been reserved for use for industrial use.
In Singapore, Singtel and a StarHub-M1 joint venture are licensed to roll out islandwide 5G services in the 3.5GHz spectrum as well as smaller localised deployments in the millimetre wave (mmWave) spectrum.
The remaining telecom operator, TPG Telecom, got the 26GHz/28GHz spectrum in the mmWave band to roll out localised 5G networks, which could be useful for private networks.
It will be interesting to see how these telcos deliver private 5G networks to businesses. Already, trials have been run at Singapore’s sea port to control AGVs, for example, to optimise operations.
But so much more is promised by 5G. It can be more stable and better for mobile links than Wi-Fi, which is proven for static setups. Plus, 5G’s low latency is a big plus.
Yes, a private 5G network could be expensive compared to campus-wide Wi-Fi, unfortunately, because pricing is still based on what telcos would pay for a public network. This means better pricing is needed for such private 5G networks to gain adoption.
It is also critical for service providers to hand-hold many businesses in this, since running a mobile network isn’t on the CV of most corporate chief information officers.
That said, those players that can deliver a managed service well along with the performance that 5G is known for will show why all these years’ of hype over the new mobile technology is not just hot air. It’s about to change how businesses operate, as it’s been prophecised.