In its current form, 5G is focused on delivering an enhanced mobile broadband experience to consumers. But, in terms of creating new revenue opportunities, operators are looking to enterprise digital transformation to deliver 5G use cases that draw on the full feature set of eMBB, massive IoT, and ultra-reliable low-latency communications. As 5G continues to evolve in tandem with adjacent technologies like edge computing and artificial intelligence, it will deliver on the promise of making industries “smart.”
In its current form, 5G is focused on delivering an enhanced mobile broadband experience to consumers. But, in terms of creating new revenue opportunities, operators are looking to digital enterprise transformation–leveraging the full feature set of 5G, including eMBB, massive machine-type communication (mMTC), and ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC), to monetize 5G networks and services. As 5G continues to evolve in tandem with adjacent technologies like edge computing and artificial intelligence, it will deliver on the promise of making industries “smart.”
One of the recurring questions around the role of telecommunications service providers and ICT vendors in enabling the digital transformation of verticals is how do they gain to understand the needs of very different sectors like mining, healthcare, manufacturing, and port operations well enough to effectively create services that are meaningful to those sectors? Gaining that domain expertise can allow the telecoms sector to go beyond selling technology to selling solutions tuned to the specific business needs of users in different industries.
Huawei Technologies and others in the telecoms world have leaned into co-creation, working directly with industrial users to develop and test 5G-enabled solutions. Speaking at the opening of a facility meant to foster this collaborative development for the mining sector, Huawei Technologies Founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei commented, “The basic platform we provide for coal mining is the same as the ones we provide for iron and steel plants, ports, and airports. The 5G applications for different industries are different, but most of the technologies are the same…Our main goal is to increase the adoption of electronic, software, and computing systems in different industries..”
How can operators capture enterprise 5G business
The technological shift associated with 5G—new and more spectrum, the proliferation of virtualized and cloud-native network functions, and increasing process automation—is meant to provide a powerful, highly flexible network capable of supporting the digitalization of industries. But to effectively do this, there has to be a concurrent shift within service provider organizations; development teams have to understand the needs of verticals with a new level of expertise; operations staff need to be reorganized to blend a cloud-first model with a more traditional network engineering skills, and sales forces have to penetrate these verticals with business-specific solutions in hand.
Recall Zhenfei and Scanlan’s comments around gaining expertise in particular verticals by working directly with them to develop solutions that leverage cellular connectivity and ICT infrastructure. This is just the point of Huawei’s Intelligent Mining Innovation Lab in China’s Shanxi province. At the facility, more than 220 staff members from both Huawei and various coal mining interests, work on what Zhengfei called a “co-leadership mechanism, where leaders from the coal industry have a greater say on mining aspects, while Huawei leaders have a greater say on the electronics side of things.”
Specific to mining, he mentioned using ICT to improve worker safety and increase worker efficiency. Autonomous equipment and operations will ultimately reduce staffing needs with an emphasis on getting workers out of mines to the extent possible. “We can also enable coal mine workers to wear suits and ties at work, and propel the mining machinery industry…forward.”
In 2020 Huawei started working with a mining equipment manufacturer, Yuexin Zhineng, to continue developing autonomous mining equipment with some autonomous assets already in use at a molybdenum mine in Henan province. Having collaborated before the rollout of 5G on similar projects, Huawei and Yuexin Zhineng are now bringing 5G into the mix with numerous base stations deployed at a mining facility in support of autonomous equipment testing.
Yuexin Zhineng’s Chief Engineer Yang Hui said, 5G “will be a significant boost to the operation precision, stability, and efficiency in unmanned mining.”
In 2019 Huawei worked with China Mobile’s Inner Mongolian subsidiary, machine vision specialist Tage I-Driver, and steel producer Baogang Group to deploy autonomous vehicles at a site in Inner Mongolia. Using a 5G network and an autonomous driving system, the partners leveraged GPS, machine vision, and sensor data from vehicles and roads to help vehicles “perceive their environment;” 5G carried the data to an edge computing node that helps make near-real-time control decisions. 5G facilitates remote vehicle operation, automatic obstacle avoidance, more accurate parking, and overall improvements in operational efficiency.
The digital transformation of vertical industries is a long-term process that was well underway before the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly re-shaping how people live, work, and interact the world over. However, the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which strained and in some cases temporarily broke global healthcare institutions, has served to rapidly accelerate the adoption of digital technologies by hospital systems.
In a paper published in March by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, a trio of Germany-based authors notes how the COVID-19 response necessitated the use of digital technologies for telemedicine treatment of patients to maintain social distancing, and AI- and mobile-assisted contract tracing and diagnostic efforts.
“The rapid adoption of digital technologies during the crisis shows that stakeholders will be motivated to engage in the digital transformation in healthcare if each one can benefit from these digital innovations (e.g., Steinhauser 2019),” according to “Digitalization in Healthcare” authors Patrick Glauner, Philipp Plugmann and Guide Lerzynski. “It also points to the importance of digital complementary assets for a swift adoption of digital innovations such as telemedicine or AI (Steinhauser et al. 2020).”
Extending from the point made by the authors regarding the “swift adoption” of technology in the healthcare sector, consider the work done at Huoshenshan Hospital in China’s Hubei province during January and February 2020. The 1,000-bed hospital, covering nearly 34,000-square meters was designed for COVID-19 treatments; it’s equipped with an intensive care unit, general wards, and space for infection control, testing, and radiology. Underpinning the hospital’s ICT systems, used for mobile rounds and nursing, remote consultation, and video conferencing is a 5G network that was built out and made operational in just 10 days.
In late January, operators China Mobile and China Unicom worked with Huawei Technologies and the Wuhan Epidemic Prevention and Control Headquarters to design and build a 5G network to serve Huoshenshan Hospital. Built-in tandem with wired comms systems and a Wi-Fi 6 network, the combination of those two with 5G is also used to support various internet of things implementations, including environmental monitoring in the pharmacy, patient monitoring, and tracing infectious waste. Artificial intelligence and machine learning were introduced to identify and fix network faults to maintain uninterrupted connectivity.
In December 2020, Huawei Technologies Thailand entered into a five-year deal with the Siriraj Hospital, part of Mahidol University, for 5G, AI, and cloud technologies for smart hospitals. Huawei will provide network infrastructure and other solutions to improve hospital efficiency; the two groups will also work to jointly develop other healthcare-focused projects.
Abel Deng, CEO of Huawei Technologies Thailand, said, “The healthcare sector can benefit immensely from smart innovations and infrastructure during this era of digitalization. We would like to accompany Thailand as it develops a strong, connected healthcare ecosystem to increase healthcare penetration in rural and remote communities and improve the quality of life of the people.”
Ports are critical infrastructures that serve as vital points of connection in global supply chains. As shipping volume continues to increase, port operators (and technology companies) are investing in process automation to reduce costs and increase productivity. Huawei and numerous partners have been considering the role 5G and complementary technologies can play in port operations for several years. In 2019, Huawei Technologies collaborated with China Mobile, Vodafone, and port implement manufacturer ZPMC in a white paper that scoped out primary port-specific applications and attendant 5G network requirements.
With working beginning in 2018, Huawei and China Mobile Zhejiang began work on a 5G port application pilot at Ningbo-Zhoushan Port (NZP), one of the busiest terminals in the world made of 19 port areas and more than 600 berths that service over 100 vessels with capacity over 10,000 tons every day. In addition to the 5G network, which is now providing full coverage at NZP, the partners also introduced edge computing and artificial intelligence solutions to support smart cargo handling, automated logistics using unmanned vehicles, and remote-controlled gantry cranes.
Other 5G-enabled applications include video streaming from HD cameras that undergoes machine vision analysis in an on-premise edge cloud. AI conducts object recognition, identifying container numbers and types, truck operation numbers, and load positions and lanes. A virtual slice of the network, tuned for ultra-low latency, very high reliability, and significant upstream bandwidth connects programmable logic controllers on cranes with remote operators monitoring HD video streams from the implements.
Is 5G enough?
As established earlier in this paper, 5G was designed to support three primary use cases: eMBB, mMTC, and URLLC. But based on what industry needs from 5G, these three use cases don’t fully address the opportunity, according to William Xu, a Huawei director and president of the company’s Institute of Strategic Research. Speaking at the company’s annual analyst summit hosted in Shenzhen, Xu said, “Currently 5G networks are far from being able to offer such [fully-immersive] experiences even though now the 5G networks have been deployed at large scale.” Over the next few years, one challenge Huawei and the ICT sector at large will face “will be about defining 5.5G to support hundreds of billions of diverse connections. 5G is for enabling everything so that it can be connected but in addition to connecting people, we also need to connect massive numbers of things and the demands from those connections will be very diverse.”
In the context of the industrial internet of things, Xu said there needs to be support for massive connection density as well as high upload bandwidth, a use case somewhere between eMBB and mMTC that he described as “uplink centric broadband communication,” or UCBC. For applications requiring very high throughput and ultra-reliable connectivity, he proposed something between eMBB and URLLC that he termed “real-time broadband communication,” or RTCB. For things like a collaboration between an autonomous vehicle and a smart transportation infrastructure, there needs to be “harmonized communication and sensing,” or HCS, according to Xu.
Xu’s colleague David Wang, a company executive director pictured below at the annual Mobile Broadband Forum last year, expanded on the move from 5G to 5.5G. “Going beyond the original three application scenarios to six, 5.5G will take us beyond the internet of everything, enabling the intelligent internet of everything,” he said. “Unified standards and industry collaboration are the core DNA that shapes the success of the global wireless communications industry. The development of 5.5G requires collaboration between all parties up and down the value chain.”
Wang made three specific recommendations for developing 5.5G:
Industry stakeholders should begin working out the details through the 3GPP standardization body.
Operators should “[make] the most of sub-100 GHz spectrum to provide diversified network capabilities and devices and overhaul cellular IoT.”
And there should be a strong focus on 5G for verticals, particularly creating more use cases
This raises the question, in its work with enterprises leveraging 5G for industrial IoT, has Huawei already hit some technological walls in terms of capabilities? We posed that question to Huawei Carrier Business Group CTO Paul Scanlan in a virtual Q&A. The simple answer, he said, is yes.
In sectors like healthcare, education, and manufacturing, there’s a huge emphasis on uplink-intensive use cases, Scanlan said. Early 5G deployments were all about downlink speed increases as compared to 4G. “But behavioral changes between people and some of these industries have demonstrated that the way content is generated is different. The point I want to make here is this is uplink…The volume of uplink traffic is so large that it does require some architectural change and that was one of the key drivers of this thing…we branded 5.5G. We started to get a lot of empirical evidence. We saw it from industries.”
In addition to uplink demand, latency is also a gating factory. Scanlan gave the example of augmented reality or holographic applications. “If there’s latency and gaps, the longest one is the one that dictates the performance. We can already foresee this is where it’s moving. The answer is…we see this empirical evidence of some technology challenges.”
Back to Xu: “5G scenarios must be upgraded from the previous triangle to the hexagon of 5.5G to support all things connected and all things intelligent.”
Q and A with Paul Scanlan
Question: When does 5G start to become markedly different from advanced 4G?
Answer: From a technology stack perspective, it’s really a standalone architecture of the core. If we were to compare 4G with 5G, a lot of people have said what they’ve said in the past—5G is 4G on steroids. It’s just faster, what can you really do with it? In manufacturing, some of the use cases involve looking at a lot of videos. You’re trying to transport this data up into the cloud. With 4G, you can’t define the quality of experience, you can’t maintain that SLA. The standalone architecture allows the operator to provide that service, that type of SLA. 5G as a technology has the ability to provide significantly more uplink than 4G.
Question: What challenges will carriers face in this shift from selling connectivity to selling business solutions into vertical markets?
Answer: “The biggest challenge you have is that a mobile operator pays the government for a license…builds sites, builds towers, and provides SIMs. And now we’re asking these guys to focus on a manufacturing facility. You need people that are experts in the industry. If I look at the biggest challenge a telecom operator has, it’s how to best engage in this industry to see what solution it can bring. A digital platform provider—that’s what they should be.
Question: How organizationally does an operator become a digital platform provider?
Answer: The challenge is in the DNA. We’ve gone from this model that just sells SIMs, but for the enterprise, we need the consultative model. That capability is very core in my opinion. It’s about the DNA of the operator and how they engage in the discussion. Some operators commit teams of people to solutions—there aren’t many but there are a few.
Question: In the early days of bringing 5G to verticals, how do operators move from pilot to scaled deployments so they can capture revenue from a larger total addressable market?
Answer: A port doesn’t churn. A robot doesn’t churn. A water meter doesn’t churn. I would’ve thought the operators would understand that. It’s a very close relationship— you’re providing a significant amount of value. It’s a very high net worth type of customer. In Wuhan…Huawei built a 5G network in a matter of days. In less than a month, you’ve got a hospital with everything. Why can’t we transform all the hospitals in the world to have the same type of 5G/AI capability?
Question: Is there a risk 5G will be a rehash of 4G where operators build the networks but lose the meaningful service revenues to the equivalent of over-the-top providers, particularly with the added context of hardware commoditization and liberalized access to spectrum?
Answer: There is a big risk that they’ll miss the opportunity. It really depends on if the government or the regulator provides the spectrum. The opportunity to build networks for industries is enormous. It’s just enormous. The big risk is that the operators fall into this, Let’s just upgrade our 4G network and build the 5G network to reduce congestion and reduce our operating costs.
That now begs the question: where does the transformation come in 5G B2B. That has why Huawei has been promoting this. We do think operators will not be able to independently go out there, figure it out and deploy at scale.