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Start Your 5G Journey Now with 4G LTE

Lost amid the noise around 5G is that well into this decade, 4G LTE will remain the strongest contender for IIoT solutions, even as we prepare for the 5G era.

A cyber-physical system is a fundamental building block of Industry 4.0.

It’s hardly news that we’re at the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution. The Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence, ubiquitous wireless connectivity, mixed reality, blockchain, autonomous vehicles, the cloud—these and countless other recent developments are changing the way industries operate. The promise: the merger between digital and physical systems into the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) —a cyber-physical system that’s a fundamental building block of Industry 4.0

In the limelight and often polarizing is 5G. To some, the fifth generation of cellular communication technology is over-hyped. Others are preparing to upend their industries to get in on the action as early adopters. Somewhere in between, the more cautious are investing in 5G to gain the experience needed to create new products and solutions that they can offer to their customers once the dust settles and the technology is mature.

Precisely because of all the hype, this confusion is hardly a surprise. With the industry-relevant facets of 5G still a few years from widespread adoption, traditionally conservative industries will be tempted to hold off investments into the IIoT until the new standard in 3GPP’s Release 17 is fully implemented. After all, why pour money into 4G LTE—a technology that seems to be on the verge of becoming outdated—when a technological revolution is in the making?

There’s just one thing: Far from obsolescence, 4G LTE still gains traction and will continue to grow its footprint for years to come, dominating the market for even longer. In fact, 4G LTE networks will complement and even underpin 5G networks as they take root.

A point that tends to get lost amid the noise around 5G is that well into this decade, 4G LTE will remain the strongest contender for IIoT solutions (Fig. 2). In this article, we’ll lay out why. We’ll also look at how best to prepare for the new 5G era and explore ways to start tapping into the value 5G will bring—using today’s 4G LTE technology.

Not only will LTE networks be available for another decade or more, they’re expected to continue their evolution well into the 5G era.

A Game-Changer... Eventually

There’s no doubt that 5G will be transformational and that much of the hype surrounding it is warranted. It even stands a chance of living up to its lofty ambition of fundamentally transforming the role cellular communication technologies play in society, culminating in an “Internet of Everything,” built on several disruptive innovations:

  • 5G adds new spectrum bands, including sub 1 GHz and mmWave (>24 GHz), to expand capacity.

  • It offers up to 1-GHz channel bandwidth in mmWave bands to achieve ultra-high broadband speeds.

  • It introduces a new radio interface (5G NR) that’s versatile enough to serve diverse needs.

  • It will require a new core network with small cells, network slicing, network virtualization, edge computing, and more to meet requirements and tailor performance to industry-specific requirements.

Defined by 3GPP, the standardization body responsible for defining global cellular-communications standards, 5G’s specifications cater to diverse new use cases that are relevant in industrial applications. Ranging from a new generation of human-machine interfaces to automated manufacturing to ubiquitous sensing and cloud connectivity, each use case can be enabled using the right balance between 5G’s three fundamental pillars:

  • Enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) will deliver data-transfer rates in excess of 10 Gb/s while increasing capacity by three orders of magnitude.

  • Ultra-reliable, low-latency communication (URLLC) will target an astounding reliability of up to 99.9999% with latencies in the milliseconds.

  • Finally, massive machine-type communication (mMTC) will further extend the promise of today’s low-power, wide-area networks (LPWANs), delivering sporadic data with low power requirements and at low cost.

A Staggered Rollout

That’s a lot to look forward to. But fully rolling out 5G around the globe will take time. We’ll see mobile network operators align their schedules with the business cases they consult in their respective markets, as well as with their willingness and capacity to make the required investments. Moreover, 3GPP isn’t releasing the 5G specifications in one fell swoop for all industries. Instead, each new release brings additional features to the technology.

GPP Release 15 was mostly about making possible eMBB and its high-speed data transfer, primarily targeting consumer markets. Release 15 was further broken down into three sub-releases. The first, focusing on the non-standalone (NSA) implementation of the technology on the back of 4G LTE networks, was put on a fast track and delivered in late 2017. Major mobile network operators (MNOs) have since brought the technology to key markets in urban areas.

The second sub-release, which deals with the standalone implementation of 5G, was finalized in mid-2018. The final sub-release followed in early 2019, adding several technical enhancements. Because MNOs are still busy rolling out 5G NSA, it could still be a few years before we see commercial rollouts of the standalone variant.

3GPP Release 16, slated for the first half of 2020, will finally address the two pillars that most impact the connected industry: URLLC and, finally, mMTC. URLLC, in particular, will require dedicated network implementation. Release 17, scheduled for the last quarter of 2021, will further expand these pillars.

A Smooth Transition for LPWANs

To ensure the longevity of today's LPWAN solutions, which are only beginning to ramp up, the 3GPP consortium is going out of its way to ensure a smooth migration path from 4G LTE to 5G technologies.

Not only will LTE networks be available for another decade or more, but they’re also expected to continue their evolution well into the 5G era, future-proofing investments with further improvements in power consumption, performance, device size, features, and cost. Backwards compatibility will ensure that 4G LTE solutions continue to deliver even as 5G goes mainstream. And “legacy” LPWAN devices, which work on today’s 4G networks, will be made compatible with 5G networks.

This explains why some industries are embracing advances provided by 4G LTE to streamline their operations, increasing their efficiencies and growing their productivity. It’s a trend that will only accelerate as we enter the 5G era, changing the entire logic on the factory floor, where a heavily fragmented market of wired technologies still dominates today.

Today’s manufacturing sites, for example, are made up of “connectivity islands” separated by gateways at the field level. Because existing technology standards are fragmented and, consequently, lack interoperability, simply getting different industrial networking technologies to connect requires a series of protocol translations.

Contrast that to Industry 4.0’s promise of full transparency across all processes and assets at all times, with seamless communication between goods, production systems, supply and distribution chains, people, and processes, all on the back of unified, robust, and reliable wireless connectivity.

New Emerging Business Models

But it isn’t just operations that are being redefined. Entire business models are being shaken up, driven by facilitated access to data. Generated faster than ever—across industrial verticals—it’s gaining strategic value as an enabler of real-time quality control, predictive maintenance, integrated supply and distribution chains, workforce monitoring, and more. This fundamentally changes the ways industries operate.

Data is gaining in strategic value as an enabler of real-time quality control, predictive maintenance, integrated supply and distribution chains, workforce monitoring, and more.

A case in point: Industry 4.0 is accelerating the speed of business under the slogan, “Today’s order is tomorrow’s delivery.” It’s simultaneously reversing the decades-old trend of centralized mass production: Demand for mass-produced goods that are customized down to the individual unit can only be met on time if production capacity moves closer to the end customers.

Full traceability is just as disruptive: Thanks to Industry 4.0, operation managers can know the exact source of each piece used in every single device they produce. Even when deployed, devices can be continually monitored, revealing weaknesses in the manufacturing process that can be addressed to improve the quality of future products. And customers reap the benefits of a new level of data- and insight-driven service and support.

Moreover, by embracing technologies that don’t require wired connectivity, Industry 4.0 makes manufacturing more agile and more versatile. Easier to deploy than the wired solutions of the past, LPWAN and 5G technologies reduce the investment needed to gather huge amounts of sensed data. They accelerate implementation in existing and new installations. They deliver higher quality information and improve operator safety. And finally, they’re much more flexible to implement and easier to scale.

Lifting Industrial Automation to New Heights

Tapping into this pool of data and translating it into actual benefits will require a new, more holistic way of thinking about the flows of resources, goods, and people, as well as of supply, production, and distribution chains. Not to mention the operation and maintenance of all the machines and other installations, and the safety and wellbeing of the people involved.

Setting up and running this new way of communicating between goods, production systems, and processes will require extensive human thinking and supervision and a deeper understanding of all aspects of the production process. Likewise, rationalizing processes on the conveyor belt will demand more sophisticated planning, creation, and process management, combined with a move to strengthen local production capacity.

The culmination of this holistic approach—the marriage between operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT)—will be the digital twin, a virtual representation of all relevant information about the manufacturing process. As digital twins mature, they will progress both in scope and depth. They will tie together increasingly more detailed data on resources, products, and assets, as well as information on the status and performance of the operational infrastructure, the machines, and even external supply chains.

Private Networks: A Stepping-Stone on the Way to 5G

It will, however, be years before the industry-relevant facets of 5G are rolled out on public networks. In the meantime, non-public networks, owned and operated by enterprises or professional service providers, will be the quickest way to solve the challenges of reliability, availability, low turnaround time, and data privacy.

Already available using 4G LTE, non-public networks give companies the possibility to adjust network parameters and radio spectrum utilization to meet industry-specific needs. These private networks can enable mission-critical applications, ultra-low latencies, ultra-high data-transfer rates, or an extra level of safety that rival those offered by 5G.

Manufacturing sites, warehouses, supply chains, and logistics are obvious beneficiaries of private networks. To the extent that they leverage wireless connectivity at all, manufacturing sites tend to be made up of a patchwork of technologies that can’t be integrated into a single platform, limiting the complexity of applications that they can enable. 4G LTE and later 5G private networks offer a new level of versatility, scalability, and ease of implementation.

Several countries have begun to reserve spectrum specifically for industrial private cellular networks. Germany has reserved spectrum in the range from 3.7 to 3.8 GHz, with Sweden likely to follow suit. Japan has reserved spectrum at 2.4, 4.5, 4.6, and 28.2-29.1 GHz, while the UK has reserved spectrum at 1.8, 2.3, 3.8-4.2, and 24.25-26.5 GHz.

On request, the German Federal Network Agency is allocating frequencies for a limited period of up to 10 years, with annual fees in the four- to five-digit ranges (Euros) based on the requested bandwidth, the duration of allocation, and the coverage area. It’s an attractive offering that hasn’t been universally welcomed by mobile network operators, not least because it cuts a significant slice out of the frequency spectrum.

Shaping the Future of the Connected Industry

At u-blox, we are strongly engaged in shaping the future of the connected industry. As active members of the 3GPP consortium, we participate and contribute to NB-IoT and mMTC standardization. In addition, we are engaged in pilot studies exploring the requirements and performance of 5G technology in industrial use cases.

5G-SMART (Fig. 4), funded by the European Commission, brings together partners from industry (Bosch, ABB, Ericsson, and u-blox among others) and research (Lund University, Universitat Politechnica de Valencia, and Fraunhofer Institute), to evaluate the potential of 5G in real manufacturing environments. And as an active member of 5G-ACIA, we are working with a diverse team of IT and OT industrial partners to ensure the best possible applicability of 5G technology and 5G networks for connected industries, particularly manufacturing and process industries.

Start Today

By broadening the scope of applications that are possible with cellular communication technologies, 5G is poised to take the connected industry to the next level. But it will still be several years before the industry-relevant facets of the standard are mature and mobile network operators roll out the infrastructure needed to implement 5G-based solutions.

The good news is that the 3GPP is going out of its way to provide a smooth transition from today’s 4G LPWA technologies to their 5G successors. This means that you can embark on your 5G journey today, embrace the possibilities 4G LPWA already offers to enable new business models, and gain a technological head start over your competition that will pay dividends in the long run.


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