Peter Sayer
Senior Editor

5G ready or 5G really? Industry CIOs face hard truths about private 5G

Jun 06, 20238 mins
CIONetwork AppliancesNetwork Switches

Some enterprises are building private 5G networks for their industrial environments, only to find they have to initially settle for 4G service. So what is private 5G ready for, and what can it really do?

ArcelorMittal France conceived 5G Steel, a private cellular network serving its steel works in Dunkerque, to support its digitalization plans with high-speed, site-wide 5G connectivity.

But when it turned the network on in October 2022, the devices connecting to it were only 4G.

French public network operator Orange built the private network, which covers a 10-square-kilometer area at the ArcelorMittal plant in Dunkerque. It’s 5G-based, but the terminals using it aren’t, as the availability of 5G-compatible terminals suitable for use in an industrial environment is too limited, says David Glijer, the company’s director of digital transformation.

Such hardware limitations are hindering companies’ ambitions elsewhere too. When network equipment maker Nokia and infrastructure services provider Kyndryl got together to roll out private wireless connectivity to industrial customers, 5G was a big part of their pitch.

At chemical manufacturer Dow, though, where Kyndryl and Nokia helped build a high-speed network covering one of the company’s largest plants, the wireless is only 4G.

“Everybody’s hyped up about 5G networks, but you have to have devices and applications that work on 5G, so we’re not going to jump there yet,” Dow CIO Melanie Kalmar told last year. “But we’ll be prepared to go there and make that switch. The infrastructure that we’ve put in place will be able to transition to 5G.”

When private 5G mobile was first mooted as an alternative to WiFi, it was seen as a way to deliver reliable, high-bandwidth, low-latency, wireless connectivity for real-time control of industrial systems. However, some of its early adopters in industrial environments, like ArcelorMittal France, aren’t yet able to get all the expected benefits from their investment, while others, like Dow, focused on the here-and-now benefits of 4G while planning ahead for an easy upgrade.

What 5G is

CIOs looking to future-proof their private wireless network investments need to understand what 5G is. That ought to be easy, notwithstanding the attempts of mobile operators such as AT&T to fake it till they make it, branding their existing 4G towers as “5G evolution.”

5G is a new radio technology standard requiring new mobile terminals, new base stations for them to connect to, and (to get all the benefits) a new network core that can deliver millisecond latency and network slicing to provide guaranteed bandwidth and performance.

Did we say a technology standard? Well, not quite. 5G mobile is defined in a series of standards based on technical specifications issued by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project. 3GPP was formed in 1998 to bring together the national standards bodies defining then-new 3G mobile technology to agree on a single, global mobile standard. Every year or two it issues a new release of the specifications, adding new capabilities and improving performance, and its standards body partners implement the specifications in their national standards. Work on the releases often overlaps, so discussion of one will be well advanced, and talk of which features to put in the next will have begun, even before details of the previous one are frozen.

Sometimes the changes from one release to the next are incremental, and sometimes they mark a switch to a new generation of technology. That was the case with Release 10, the first widely considered true 4G, or Release 15, which ushered in what we now know as 5G.

5G: New Radio

When the specification for Release 15 was first approved in March 2017, it only defined so-called non-standalone (NSA) 5G networks, enabling the use of 5G New Radio base stations and terminals over a 4G network core. The final specification for standalone (SA) 5G, defining the construction of networks with a new low-latency core, wasn’t frozen until June 2019 — and even then, equipment manufacturers and network operators had to wait until national standards bodies and telecommunications regulators had transposed the specifications into local laws before they could get to work.

That still left enterprises keen to use 5G in industrial control systems dependent on public network operators, where network latency could be increased by long back-haul routes or by congestion delays as they competed for network capacity with other customers.

Support for non-public networks (NPNs), 3GPP’s term for private 5G, first appeared in Release 16, which was frozen in June 2020. It also defined some of the other features essential for industrial applications, such as ultra-reliable and low-latency communications (URLLC).

The features in Release 17 — including enhancements to its support for non-public networks and network slicing — weren’t frozen until June 2022, although discussion (and thus expectation) of them began as early as 2019.

Enterprises have been left hanging for years, waiting for the features critical to industrial use cases, including low latency and network slicing, to be finalized.

Even today, a key question to ask when offered a private 5G network, then, is which release of the specifications it complies with. Systems designed and built to older specifications won’t have all the capabilities of newer ones.

Be wary, too, of “5G-ready” systems that have a 5G core topped with a 4G radio, or 5G radios ready to be updated with a true 5G core. Their capabilities will be different, and the cost of upgrading from 5G-ready to real 5G will vary depending on the site configuration.

Partner up

Another key question is who will plan and build the network as there’s more to private 5G than putting in a hotspot every 50 meters and running an Ethernet drop.

“You’re going to need a good partner, and that partner is going to have to be well versed in 5G,” says Alex Sinclair, a telecommunications industry veteran and now CTO of the GSMA, an industry body. The options include wireless network operators, which obviously have the experience and often offer private networking as a sideline; wireless equipment vendors such as Nokia, Ericsson, or Huawei; and systems integrators like Tech Mahindra or Infosys, which have specialist private 5G practices.

Finding a partner that knows your business is important because 5G is not a homogenous thing anymore. “If you’re going to integrate it into a factory production line, or an airport, that integration tends to be bespoke,” he says. “You’ve got to pick the right partners to deal with.”

Call waiting

Even if you build a true 5G private network, will you be able to use it? That all depends on what you want to connect to it. 5G smartphones are common now but ruggedized tablets, the kind of thing you’d want in an industrial environment, are still few and far between, and command a price premium. Dell, for example, charges $150 to add a 4G modem to its Latitude 7220 Rugged Extreme Tablet, or $348 for a 5G modem — and that isn’t even ready to take advantage of the enhanced network core features of standalone 5G networks.

For the chips that power the wireless modems, there’s also still a huge difference in price — as much as a factor of 15 — between those for 4G and 5G systems. That’s enough to discourage device manufacturers from offering 5G options for now, especially for niche industrial applications. And when they do, they’ll add a hefty mark-up, which further lowers demand.

The shortage of terminals is an old story in the mobile industry. It goes right back to the introduction of the early digital mobile standard known as PCS in the US and GSM everywhere else. Industry jokers claimed that GSM stood for ‘God Send Mobiles,’ says Sinclair.

The adoption cycle

“It’s part of a cycle that by now we understand quite well,” Sinclair says. “We’re about halfway through the adoption cycle with 5G now, but 4G is going to be around for a long time. That also means for private networks, there are a lot of requirements you can cover quite adequately with 4G radio for the moment.”  

Inevitably, 4G will be cheaper today but the cost of 5G devices will drop exponentially, as it has for every previous generation of mobile technology, says Sinclair, so CIOs need to consider when to make the jump.

“It’s all very well saying I’m going to get a better price and it’s better understood and there’s more support for 4G,” he says. “But if you’re going to put it into an application that’s going to be there for 10 years, you really should be thinking about 5G just to be future safe.”