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5G in Reality: If? When? How?

Aug. 6, 2021
With so much hype around the launch of 5G, it’s no mystery why industrial IoT users are asking themselves when and how they can leverage its promised benefits. Many of the initial benefits of 5G, though, are actually benefits for the operators themselves.

What you’ll learn:

  • Should you say yes to 5G?
  • Factors driving commercial and industrial users to evaluate 5G today.
  • Benefits of private LTE as an alternative.

Major carriers and the makers of telecommunications equipment, chips, and handsets have been working on 5G for more than 10 years. In the U.S. consumers began to hear about it in advertising as early as 2017. 5G-capable handsets began rolling out in 2019 with network deployments right behind.

With so much build up, it’s no mystery why industrial internet users are asking themselves when and how they can leverage its promised benefits.

Big Data. Low Latency. Enhanced Security. Network Ubiquity.

Promises have indeed been made, though not all are quite ready to be kept. In fact, many of the initial benefits of 5G are, first and foremost, benefits for the operators themselves.

More efficient use of spectrum means more user data through finite pipes with less signaling overheads—and better returns on the capital investments of spectrum license holders. Improved reliability and reduced latency offer the opportunity to upgrade services, as well as fees and lucrative handset refresh cycles. Security benefits us all, but not everyone experiences the cost of a security breach equally. And when it comes to major infrastructure rollouts, ubiquity takes time.

The hype around 5G has largely focused on the network disaggregation, open radio access networks (RAN), service-level agreements, network slicing, and virtualizing local compute and AI, plus, to some degree, its benefit to the consumer. What remains to be fully realized is how this technology might impact commercial and industrial customers who prefer to focus on the ROI to digitize their business.

The first question these users should be asking is where do my existing networks fall short of my requirements and can 5G meet those needs?

Should You Say Yes to 5G?

Looking back over the past 10 years, it’s easy to see that 4G-LTE has digitally transformed the lives of most everyone with smartphones, changing everything from how we order goods and food; manage our home heating, lighting, and security; perform our banking; and even how we get around. Prior to 4G, hardly anyone could imagine how we have since adapted even our interpersonal communications customers, friends, and family.

Much of that change has been driven by consumers. Today, commercial and industrial enterprises, which were perhaps slower to adopt 4G-LTE’s consumer-driven benefits, are looking forward to the profound efficiency and safety impact that digitizing every asset and process can bring. Not to be left behind, these business customers in fact have the most to gain from the promise that 5G can bring to their business together with edge-computing and artificial intelligence, which together are often referred to as industrial IoT (IIoT) or Industry 4.0. 

A few key decision factors are driving commercial and industrial users to evaluate 5G today. They include deterministic delivery of mobile broadband data with a predictable low latency and improved security. When it comes to the IIoT, access to spectrum that many nations recently liberalized—particularly in the mid-band and millimeter-wave (mmWave) bands where access to 100 MHz or more spectrum is lightly licensed or unlicensed—has been a key game changer.

Bandwidth matters for big-data applications like real-time or simultaneous video streaming and augmented reality.

Speed is key when it comes to automated vehicles, robotic automation, and handling hazardous materials.

Security is particularly important in the case of critical infrastructure.

In these instances, the time to achieve the fourth promise—network ubiquity—is a meaningful, but not insurmountable, obstacle to early adoption. Many press reviews of 5G have said that it’s great—if you can find it. Which is fine for consumer applications (for now), but not for the IIoT, a key benefit of which is the ability to reach out and virtually touch far-flung industrial assets.

As stated earlier, achieving network ubiquity takes time as carriers roll out 5G infrastructure—a major global undertaking. The good news is that 4G LTE (long-term evolution) infrastructure stands ready to support this transition and will remain an essential part of 5G networks well into the foreseeable future. More importantly, most industrial assets are contained. Thus, the option of deploying a private enterprise network opens the door to 5G access today while leveraging open 4G-LTE and 5G public infrastructure for assets that move between covered facilities.

The Time is Now?

As 5G networks are deployed and 4G continues to be upgraded, businesses whose use cases fall into the categories outlined above should begin to test 5G equipment for their applications. For everyone else, 4G LTE is, as its name suggests, a solid long-term technology that can assist with a transition to 5G if and as needed in the future. And it can support your application for many years to come.

Now the reader may be asking themselves: If ubiquity may yet be years away, why should I start work today? The answer is simple—maintaining your competitive edge means being ready to deploy when the network is ready for you. Anyone who has deployed cellular-enabled applications in previous generations will have learned (maybe the hard way) that success may require multiple rounds of testing and fine-tuning along the way.

Between Us: Me, Myself and I

An alternative to connecting to public operators is keeping your 5G connections private by deploying your own enterprise cellular network. This type of deployment is available using private LTE starting right now; thus, you can capitalize your connectivity and maintain complete control on-premises or in a private cloud. This allows you to wall off your applications from the outside world. It’s an approach particularly well-suited to mission-critical applications in energy, utilities, and transportation, as well as operations around high-value intellectual property.

Getting Started

In truth, options for industrial edge devices for 5G connectivity remain quite limited to date. Those available are generally fine-tuned to a select industry or application set and most are still beta versions.

My recommendation is to find the device that best fits your needs and budget, and work hand-in-hand with the hardware provider to test and refine that device to deliver optimal performance for your application.

MultiTech is currently working with a handful of organizations in just such a capacity. These early adopters in aviation, rail, logistics, and manufacturing are not only addressing their own unique business needs and applications, but also paving the way for future adopters of 5G for IIoT.

What’s Next?

As network technology advances, so too do the applications that can leverage it. I’ve limited my discussion to applications currently in the marketplace or on the immediate horizon, but it’s important not to confine our view of the future to the limits of our imagination. Recent history has shown that the previously unimaginable is often just around the corner. Indeed, that is the real promise of 5G.

About the Author

Daniel Quant | Vice President of Strategic Development, MultiTech

Daniel Quant is Vice President of Strategic Development responsible for developing corporate strategies that grow market share and brand relevance within high-growth markets—identifying and incubating innovation internally and within industry associations and technology alliances, while creating partner ecosystems that accelerate enterprise digital transformation and revenue growth. He works closely with international organizations, representing MultiTech at standardization groups, leading committees within technology and vertical industrial associations. Daniel has more than 25 years of wireless and telecom experience, including 20 leading global product teams.

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