Associated British Ports is using a private 5G network to track imports and exports in Southampton
Associated British Ports is using a private 5G network to track imports and exports in Southampton © Peter Titmuss/Universal Images Group/Getty

As fifth-generation mobile networks roll out, telecommunications companies say the technology’s ultrafast speed will create “killer apps” and transform how we consume entertainment. But the impact of 5G on business — potentially just as important — is less discussed.

Regulators are allocating 5G telecoms spectrum to companies, though — which is making easier for them to buy their own private 5G networks that do not share traffic with other networks.

Businesses involved in manufacturing, mining and logistics are already testing and installing these private 5G networks, as are public-sector organisations, including the military,

They are doing so as they need “reliable connectivity, security and more connected devices on [their] networks”, explains Tami Erwin, executive vice-president and chief executive of Verizon Business, a telecommunications and technology company.

US Rangers boarding a helicopter
The US military is among public-sector organisations using private 5G networks © Smith Collection/Gado/Getty

Company networks — cellular (mobile), WiFi and wired, using cable or fibre optic — are having to deal with a growing amount of data. Much of this new traffic is from the rapid increase in internet-connected devices, the so-called “Internet of Things”. Total connected device numbers could reach 42bn by 2025, according to a report from IDC, a research company.

By combining networks like this with autonomous robotics and augmented reality, and applying analytical techniques using artificial intelligence, companies hope to glean insights from the data — and boost growth.

Private 5G networks may provide a more reliable platform on which to connect these technologies — especially if they are used for critical business operations, experts believe.

“The why [for private 5G networks] is digital transformation,” says Brian Partridge, research director at 451 Research. “The network is critical to digital transformation, including . . . connected devices and robots on the factory floor.”

Only around a couple of hundred companies — mainly large ones — are currently making use of private 5G networks, based on industry estimates, but the market is expected to expand.

According to a forecast from MarketResearch.com, it will grow at an average rate 40 per cent a year between 2021 and 2028, by which time it will be worth $14bn.

Chris Johnson, head of global enterprise business at telecoms equipment maker Nokia, says companies using private 5G networks are already connecting a “rich tapestry” of machines and other physical assets, and analysing the data from it to improve production. “5G networks can bring a next level of connectivity and resilience”, he says. For example, they can improve predictive maintenance “before things grind to a halt”.

In Taiwan, researchers have collaborated with a technology company and an industrial company in developing a “smart factory” that deploys autonomous robots. This factory can communicate and plan using “swarm intelligence” and AI-powered cameras to detect manufacturing defects.

“The real advantage [of a private 5G network] is supporting things that aren’t typical IT infrastructure — for example, vehicles,” says Toby McClean, a technologist who helped to develop the factory.

Companies can build and run their own 5G networks, or outsource the work to telecoms operators, equipment manufacturers and tech groups.

Associated British Ports (ABP), which owns and operates 21 ports in the UK, has installed a private 5G network, supplied by Verizon, in partnership with Nokia, at its port in Southampton. And it has connected this network to new terminal operating software, which scans and tracks the imports and exports of cars.

“That gives us increased visibility in real time to track where the cars are and . . . then we can start to share [data] with our customers, including where their cargo is,” points out ABP chief information officer, Harm van Weezel. Benefits include real-time scanning of port activity and an increase in productivity, he adds.

ABP is also considering connecting the CCTV cameras in its Southampton port to its 5G network and using AI technology to analyse the images in real time. “Security is by far one of our big priorities,” Van Weezel says.

This level of automation would be much harder if ABP was still using its old outdoor network, which had approximately 200 WiFi points, he says.

The Port of Southampton
ABP’s Harm van Weezel says ‘we can start to share [data] with our customers, including where their cargo is’ © Simon Heron/Alamy

Meanwhile, Ford, the US carmaker, is trialling a private 5G network at a UK manufacturing site in Essex. Data is gathered from sensors in the machines that make batteries for electric cars. It is then analysed and processed by technologies including AI and ‘edge’ computing — processing that is done near the source of the data instead of in data centres or the cloud.

If the technology spots a manufacturing defect, such as battery contamination, it sends a message via the network to alert the machine operator. The operators wear augmented-reality glasses to connect them to experts working remotely, who can give guidance on tricky problems.

“There are about 250,000 pieces of data per car battery,” says Chris White, battery systems manager, manufacturing engineering, at Ford. “Such a large amount of data comes out of the machine in such a short amount of time that it would be impossible for someone to get all that information.”

But, for all businesses, the question is whether the benefits of creating a private 5G network will be worth the effort and cost.

A private network requires network spectrum, and hardware, which can include radio units, antennas, networking equipment and edge computing. Some devices will need SIM cards to connect to the network. Creating a private network will also be more expensive than building other types because the technology is new and needs to be more customised.

For the world’s largest companies — operating at multiple sites in dozens of countries — the cost could run into tens of millions of dollars over the deal lifetime, depending on its complexity, says Jason Leigh, research manager and 5G expert at research company IDC.

However, experts believe that private 5G networks will become cheaper as the market matures, making them affordable even for small businesses.

Last year, Amazon Web Services announced plans for a private 5G network service that it said could help organisations get up and running within days.

“Private 5G networks still have some maturing to do,” says Leigh. “[But], if you want reliable and predictable and secure operations, building a private 5G network is not a bad decision.”

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