Is 5G going to be better than previous generations?

30 March 2020

Eckard Eberle gives his thoughts on how future industrial wireless networks might look.

The recent hype about the new 5G wireless network technology gives the impression that this is the first time wireless can be used in industrial applications. However, for over 20 years wireless technologies – such as industrial Wireless LAN, WiMAX and the different mobile wireless networks (2G, 3G, 4G) have been successfully employed for many different kinds of industrial application. 

Today it is important to consider what the new 5G standard will bring to industry and how future industrial wireless networks might look.

Around 40 years ago the first cellular network was released. It was mainly focused on enhancing the usage in the public domain – for example, mobile phones. Every decade since then a new generation has been released, with only minor innovations. This changes with the 5th generation cellular network technology. Siemens, among other industrial players, became part of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) at an early stage to ensure that industrial requirements would be part of the upcoming 5G standard. 

After all this work, the outlook for 5G in industry is very promising, but there is still some way to go. Before looking further into the future, it is useful to recapture how mobile wireless technology changed the world we live in today. 

When the first commercial cellular network was launched in Japan in 1979 it was possible to communicate instantly via voice while being on the road for the first time. The 2nd generation in 1991 enabled text messaging, while 3G enabled mobile internet applications in 2002 until 4G was launched in 2009 to allow music and video streaming. 

Industry also benefitted from this development. With 1G the use cases for industry were almost non-existent. 2G brought text messaging and later even simple data transfer for industrial remote control and telecontrol applications. 3G allowed semi-live telecontrol and remote access where users could interact with applications installed remotely, with 4G allowing full and live remote access. This is not the end. The focus of 5G will be on higher bandwidths, higher reliability, lower latency and more connected devices. 

5G potential
5G offers enormous benefits but it is also important to keep in mind that not all of its features will be available right from the start and additionally features cannot be used simultaneously to the full extent.

The 3GPP is responsible for the global standardisation of cellular networks including the 5th generation. Early in the development of the latest generation a vision for 5G was created including three main scenarios. 

The first scenario, Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB), includes enhancements to 4G and the main objective is to fulfill data-driven use cases which require high data rates with wide coverage areas. A typical example is the growing need for high quality and high definition streaming of music and video to mobile devices like smartphones, virtual reality glasses, etc. The most demanding scenario is the second one, Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communication (URLLC), which embraces high reliability and low-latency requirements for mission critical applications. Typical examples include mobile robots, autonomous logistics, automated-guided-vehicles (AGVs), safety applications in industrial control environments, etc. Massive Machine Type Communication (mMTC) as the third scenario is focused on having a large number of devices in a smaller area. A use case for such a deployment can be found in Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) applications where typically a lot of connected sensors and devices are deployed in a small area which do not need to send and/or receive data continuously.

To maintain a pre-defined timeline, 5G is divided into multiple releases. Release 15 was launched in December 2018 and is focused on the eMBB scenario. Release 16 is due in June 2020 and Release 17 in September 2021, both of which will add support for the remaining two scenarios URLLC and mMTC enhancing industrial applications.

Private networks 
There are several variables to deploying a 5G network, one of which is ‘public versus private’. The first public networks are already available, but private networks for industry will come only in a couple of years when Release 16 is launched supporting the relevant features for industry. Private networks will be the key for industry as users own and control their network and are able to customise it, depending on the use cases. For several industries URLLC and mMTC could be more beneficial than eMBB, for example. With a private deployment the end-user can determine what parameters are set and can therefore run the network in its most optimal way. Furthermore, data privacy can be ensured by own responsibility.

For private networks the industry needs to have spectrum available. In Germany the Bundesnetzagentur (BNetzA) has decided to reserve 100 MHz from 3.7 GHz – 3.8 GHz for local use in industrial environments. This gives the possibility to rent spectrum for a reasonable yearly fee to use it within their own premises and to keep optimal data privacy. Other countries, such as United Kingdom, are looking at Germany as they would also need the ability to provide licensed spectrum, offering companies the possibility to establish private campus networks that no one else can access. This offers a real benefit for industry and opens the way to flexible factories of the future.   

Industrial 5G
For 5G to become truly fit for industry it is necessary to wait for Release 16 which is scheduled for June 2020. After that, it is up to the silicon providers to deliver the first industry-ready chips enabling industrial suppliers to build industry-grade product portfolios. 

Besides the hardware, another important factor is the support of solutions for private networks. These very robust and reliable wireless networks provide optimal security by keeping data on-premises and leveraging global standards in a self-owned environment. This is important because reliability equals uptime. This means that a less reliable industrial network potentially results in more production downtime leading to production loss. Besides all of that, it is also necessary to provide support for industrial protocols like OPC UA or Profinet. 

In the meantime, we are testing the current 5G standard in an industrial environment to ensure correct functionality, no matter how challenging the conditions will be. All in all, looking at the promises of 5G – low-latency communication, ultra-reliability, more end-devices in a smaller area, public and/or private networks – this new wireless communication scenarios look very promising. The private networks in particular, which are based on local use/industry spectrum, will pave the way for solutions which have not previously been possible, for example robots working together instead of side-by-side, or fully autonomous intra-logistic solutions. 

5G is well prepared for being deployed in industrial applications. However, before the green light for the wireless smart factory of the future can be given, we need a truly Industrial 5G solution fulfilling all requirements for mission-critical applications. 

Eckard Eberle is CEO of Siemens Process Automation.


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