Changing operations 04 April 2019

5G communications networks and the rules that govern their use are evolving to transform industrial operations

The emergence of fifth generation communications networks (5G) is set to have profound impact on industrial operations. Closely associated with the development of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) or Industry 4.0, 5G networks offer much more bandwidth, higher data transfer rates, reduced latency in communications and far greater accuracy and reliability, than existing fourth generation systems.

Extending far beyond mobile broadband, ever increasing data rates offer as-yet unavailable novel use cases and applications across a host of industries on the back of new tools like massive machine-type communications, for example. Capabilities such as wireless connectivity, edge computing and network slicing – in which existing physical infrastructure allows the provision of diverse services simultaneously – are expected to rapidly find their way into healthcare, agriculture, and manufacturing industries, among others. Indeed, 5G is forecast to have a particularly disruptive impact on sectors such as manufacturing, where smart factories are set to leverage these new capabilities to expand IIoT communications to many devices.

Development of 5G mobile communications supports several essential types of communication, including massive machine-type communication (mMTC). Designed to provide connectivity with low software and hardware requirements from connected devices, mMTC supports hundreds of thousands of IoT devices per square kilometre with wide-area coverage and deep indoor penetration. It also enables battery-saving low-power operations for these devices.

Enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), another 5G capability, allows extremely high data transfer rates of up to several gigabytes per second. Meanwhile, critical machine-type communication (cMTC), as enabled by 5G, facilitates applications such as industrial automation and control systems. With very low latencies of just a few milliseconds end-to-end, as well as reliability and availability, URLLC far exceeds the capabilities of even advanced 4G networks, where latency periods of around 40 milliseconds are typical.


Key to the rollout of 5G and its application in industry is the development of rules and protocols that can support its use.

For instance, NEWEC – a collective group of associations for more than 250 instrumentation and automation technology corporate users in process industries – recently met to explore connectivity in the industrial environment. NEWEC noted in December that the increased use of industrial wireless technology, particularly with the exploitation of the 5G allocation by industry, is a significant enabler for many aspects of efficient plant operation and Industry 4.0. However, the group added that it also raises many questions regarding what should be regarded as good practice and establishing common solutions.

The 5G Alliance for Connected Industries and Automation (5G-ACIA) was also recently established to ensure that the specific needs and requirements of particular industries are understood and considered by the telecoms industry and that the capabilities of 5G are thus fully realized and exploited.

Dr Afif Osseiran, director of industry engagements and research at telecoms giant Ericsson, and vice-chairman of the board of 5G-ACIA, outlines the organisation’s role in developing understanding of the basic functions of 5G and the terms used: “This is not well established, it’s still being created and built. These basic rules and protocols and standards are actually emerging as we speak. We’re putting the ground work in place rather than the bells and whistles.”

For instance, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) is developing standards for 5G network operations. As Osseiran explains: “There is a standard, the ground is there but the last details are not really there yet. If we look broadly at the use cases now, we’re preparing a new way of describing the major use cases. Some of these use cases are not covered by the standard.”

The finalisation of release 15 from 3GPP in June last year was a major milestone for 5G with the first 5G New Radio (NR) specifications completed. Commercial 5G deployments thus became available by the end of the year. It is also the basis for evolution of 5G NR technology, spanning multiple releases to improve performance and address new use cases. The industry is currently working on release 16 for the end of 2019, for instance. This will look at the use of unlicensed spectrum in addition to licensed spectrum in establishing faster connection setup, reconfiguration, and recovery of radio links.

Stefan Parkvall, a principal researcher at Ericsson Research, comments: “Duplicate transmission, data multiplexing/prioritization enhancements, accurate positioning, and provisioning of an accurate time reference are examples of technical work that will be studied within 3GPP. mMTC is catered for by the eMTC and NB-IoT standards. NR provides mechanisms to support coexistence between eMTC/NB-IoT and NR on the same carrier; mechanisms that will continue to evolve.”

He adds: “Later releases of NR will continue the evolution, for example by exploiting frequencies beyond 52.6 GHz and by introducing artificial intelligence in the radio-access network.”

Indeed, part of the 5G rollout concerns the use of protocols covering low-power wide-area networks that can support the large volume of battery-powered sensors that are anticipated as Industry 4.0 gets into its stride. LoRaWAN is one of a number of networking protocols that are designed to allow battery-operated systems to the internet in regional, national or global networks. First developed by French firm Cycleo, this patented digital wireless data communication technology protocol was acquired by Semtech in 2012. It competes against other low-power wide-area network wireless protocols such as NB-IoT or eMTC. LoRaWAN has three different classes of devices to address the wide range of potential applications.

But as Osseiran says: “There is another aspect not about technology but what kind of network: public or non-public, in terms who owns the spectrum or who operates the network or what the network will expose to the end users. It’s about the operational model and where you put the data. You have different approaches depending on the need.

“For example, if I take a utilities company they don’t want maybe the mobile network operators to have access to user data and the customer base. There are things that you don’t want to expose and that goes for other sectors such as manufacturing. You don’t want trade secrets to go beyond the factory say and there is always risk. The more information is spread across the network the risk is higher that the information can be leaked.

“At the moment we’re still discussing and establishing how these rules are basically going to work depending on your need and where you want you data to go. We’re still a way away from having 5G as an everyday part of business,” concludes Osseiran.

5G networks will have a transformative impact on operations in the years ahead, as high data transfer rates and low latency enable an explosion in Industrial Internet and Industry 4.0 developments.

BOX: 5G roll out

5G networks are currently being developed and rolled out across the globe. In the UK, Ofcom has already conducted one of a number of planned auctions for radio frequency bandwidths set aside for the 5G mobile networks. Last March five companies took part in spectrum auctions across 2.3 GHz and 3.4 GHz bands. Ofcom auctioned a total of 190 MHz of spectrum across the two bands. The 2.3 GHz band can be used by mobile companies as soon as it is released and is already being trialled in the Canary Wharf area of London by the EE mobile company, part of BT.

In November 2018, EE announced that it is launching 5G across 16 UK cities this year. Vodafone and O2 also plan to launch 5G before the end of the year in the UK. Airspan Spectrum Holdings, EE, Hutchison 3G UK, Telefonica UK and Vodafone all participated in the UK auction, although the second band, 3.4 GHz, cannot be used by mobile devices currently available. It has, nonetheless, been earmarked for 5G.

David Appleyard

Related Companies
Hutchison 3G UK Ltd
Telefonica UK Ltd

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