• The mobile industry is increasingly developing 5G use cases to support critical operations in heavy industries like construction, oil and gas, and manufacturing.
• Despite advances in 5G solutions, many industrial customers still prefer to use legacy systems for critical workloads like voice and location, citing simplicity and reliability and concerns around security of IP networks.
The mobile industry continues to promote 5G as the wireless generation built for the enterprise. As 5G rollouts progress across the globe, operator initiatives continue to focus on ways the technology can be applied to enterprise use cases. One common area operators are trying to develop is the use of 5G in heavy industry like construction, mining, manufacturing, and oil and gas. These industries often require workers to be in dangerous environments and require constant communication between workers and equipment, including traffic that spans voice, location data, machine telemetry, and environmental sensors. Operators like Orange, Singtel, SK Telecom, Telstra, AT&T, and China Mobile are at various stages of working with enterprises in verticals like healthcare, energy, mining, construction, manufacturing and government to develop ways to deploy 5G networks into their critical operations. The low latency and high bandwidth nature of the technology allows for real-time collection and processing of large amounts of data that can be used to enable remote operations, automation, enhanced security and a myriad other use cases.
Within China, in particular, the operators, telecom vendors and industry have been very aggressive in building end-to-end communications systems to support business critical operations in heavy industry. For example, China Mobile and Huawei partnered to deploy a 5G smart mine system at Xinyuan Coal Mine. This system saw a converged mobile network encompassing LTE, 5G, and NB-IoT replace multiple legacy network systems for voice, video, equipment, and sensors. The ambitious project is aimed at increasing worker safety while enabling automation and improving overall efficiency of output of the mine.
While the project in China has seen positive results, many in heavy industries and the critical communications industry do not see 5G as the panacea to address all communications pain points. Within Australia, Mastercom, a Sydney-based critical communications networking specialist, sees many of its clients across construction, minerals and transport and logistics industries evolving their critical communications to include broadband networks alongside traditional critical communications systems like land mobile radio (LMR). Mastercom says that field teams prefer the simplicity and reliability that legacy systems like LMR push to talk and beacon-based location finding provide. End users of these critical communications systems are often front-line workers and prefer simple ruggedized special-purpose equipment rather than contending with digital apps on phones or tablets during intensive working operations. Further, enterprises in industries that deal with critical infrastructure are very wary of security concerns as cyberattacks grow ever more commonplace. According to Mastercom, the IT teams at their clients often want to keep as many of their systems away from open IP networks as possible.
Despite the reliability of legacy systems and concerns around security, there is a balance to be struck between the old and the new. 5G, particularly when paired technologies like mobile edge compute and IoT, can deliver improved efficiency and safety to worksites and new solutions can be developed like machine automation or video analytics for quality control or security. However, the industry does not need to evolve to all IP, all virtual overnight. Operators like Orange have stated that this is their approach when implementing 5G into industry solutions and Mastercom works with partners to provide broadband alongside traditional radio. Companies like Motorola Solutions or Tait Communications are developing systems that support both LMR and broadband communications. The MOTOTRBO Ion Smart Radiofrom Motorola offers LMR and cellular in a single handheld device that supports an android operating system while Tait offers LMR and cellular network integration with radios and ruggedized smartphones to support different scenarios. Vendors should take an approach where they deploy next-generation networks as a complement alongside existing ones and integrate them in meaningful and secure ways.