How 5G private networks shine in a campus environment

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October 12, 2020
Nick Applegarth

IoT Partnerships Virtual SIMs

Private networks based on 5G technology have revolutionised operations at large campuses such as ports, manufacturing plants and airports. With faster speeds and throughput rates, lower latency and extended coverage, 5G private networks have replaced WiFi in many of these environments and ushered in a new era of connected and automated machines.   

This is happening because 5G is the first licensed cellular spectrum to enable businesses as a whole, beyond empowering individual workers to become more mobile. The impact 5G will have on the enterprise landscape will be significant; we only need to look at how WiFi dramatically enhanced business agility for an insight into how 5G is going to revolutionise the way businesses operate.   

As a licensed technology 5G does come with certain advantages over WiFi. Back in the day, WiFi delivered advantages over other available wireless technologies. By their nature, unlicensed bands offer lower cost access and are free for anyone to use, however, there are challenges that come with that free-for-all approach. WiFi provides adequate keyboard speeds and data transfer rates when there is no congestion in a specific signal area, and while some use cases can cope with occasional delayswhen it comes to critical time-sensitive use cases, involving worker safety, precision machinery, remote control or autonomous guided vehicles, you need to be able to guarantee performance – and that’s where a private cellular network scores.  

Eliminate interference and blind spots with a 5G private network  

We all know the pain of conflicting signals between devices on our home WiFi connection; when there are too many devices connecting to the same access point, there can be conflict. This can be tiresome in a home environment but when translated into a work setting it can have larger implications.  At one of its manufacturing plants, Whirlpool had introduced automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) to transport assets from one end of the campus to another. But the vehicles kept stopping, which in turn shut down production. Investigations revealed that the AGVs were experiencing interference from other devices on the factory floor and as a result, lost the WiFi signal. By switching to  a private network inside its plant, the white goods manufacturer eliminated this costly problem.   

It's not only interference that can interrupt a WiFi signal. Blind spots can have a real impact on productivity on large campuses like ports and factories. In these constantly changing environments where containers and equipment are stacked and moved regularly a WiFi signal can often come up against impenetrable barriers. Due to its limitations WiFi cannot simply re-route itself but 5G can cope with this dynamic environment. This cellular technology can infiltrate hard to reach areas and reduce blind spots: at one of our port customers, for example, a simple tweak of the 5G antenna meant a signal was able to reach inside quay-side vessels to read barcodes on imported cars. This has dramatically improved the efficiency of this automated process as all cars are logged while still on board the ship.

Reliable connectivity even in hard-to-reach locations 

In the Airbus Factory  they use intelligent power tools in airplane assembly scenarios.  These smart tools need to be in constant contact with a centralised platform which instructs on factors such as torque and pressure. Airbus found that the factory's WiFi signal could not reach into certain parts of the airplane which led to loss of signal and that all-important instant communication. A cellular private network with edge computing was able to bring a reliable signal into those hard-to-reach areas and provide the constant low-latency communication so critical to this work.  

Another factor to take into account, of course, is security: devices on private networks have very specific SIMs and only they can access that network. Essentially a 5G private network is a gate with a very particular key. Although WiFi security has improved, the technology is based on unlicensed spectrum which means there is a greater risk of being hacked or interfered with than 5G.  

5G and WiFi can work together 

But it’s not always an either-or situation; in some cases 5G and WiFi are not mutually exclusive – a good deal depends on what devices are connecting to what. Most organisations have a legacy investment in WiFi that could and should be protected for as long as it still adds value. In some cases a 5G backbone can be used to extend WiFi to hard-to-reach areas, a move that would otherwise require a huge investment in fibre. Aone of our airport customers, for example, we have enabled WiFi hotspots in remote parts of the airfield for Aircraft Stand-Entry Guidance Systems and to give the services teams the connectivity they need to turn a plane around. The alternative would have been to lay fibre underneath the runway and taxiways, a costly and disruptive operation. 

As we move towards an increasingly digital environment where thousands of devices are communicating with each other on the network, reliable, seamless connectivity and lower latency will be essential. As 5G becomes more mainstream and advancements are being made to WiFi technology with the introduction of WiFi 6, enterprises now have powerful connectivity at their fingertips that will deliver on all the promises of a truly connected enterprise landscape.