Industrial-grade Private wireless: the gift that keeps on giving
For many of my industrial clients, I see private wireless as a kind of change agent. It is a technology that, once in place, can create the beginnings of a digital platform that can transform their business, without it even being their original intention. As we approach the holiday season, I like to think of it as ‘the gift that keeps on giving’.
Many of the companies I consult with treat digital technologies and the networks that connect them as outside their core competency. Certainly, they employ them in supporting roles — such as sales, billing and inventory systems, office communications and marketing and promotion — but they don’t have a strategic role to play.
Other companies have integrated digital into their operations but on a use-case-by-use-case basis in the factory, the warehouse, mine or port. They will employ these technologies to automate processes or improve operational efficiency, but digital is just an enabler. They don’t give much, if any, thought to weaving all of the digital technologies together to form a digital platform for their business.
The fact that I am recently in so many discussions with companies like this, is evidence that this is changing. Most companies now recognize the need for digital transformation and acknowledge the strategic importance of treating digital as a platform for their future operational success. But they still have a tendency to treat digital as an enabling technology for specific use cases and are having trouble seeing it as a strategic platform for their future business. This is where private wireless can often work its magic.
Private wireless networks, based on LTE/4.9G technology today, and 5G tomorrow, are a relative newcomer in the enterprise space. This is because the radio spectrum LTE/4.9G needs, was exclusively used by mobile phone companies for the last decade. This is changing with the release of dedicated cellular wireless technologies, such as MulteFire, that use unlicensed spectrum, and the freeing-up of new enterprise spectrum bands by governments for the use of private LTE/4.9G networks. Not coincidentally, the arrival of these options has also led to greater willingness on the part of the mobile operators to lease their spectrum at more affordable prices to private network operators.
The result has been the sudden availability of a robust, time-tested wireless technology with a mature eco-system that can meet the performance requirements of today’s businesses. Along with IoT, cloud, AI and machine learning, LTE and 5G are part of a disruptive suite of technologies that are driving the Industry 4.0 revolution.
The ‘gift that keeps on giving’ aspect of LTE-type wireless technologies is that while many businesses justify the investment on the basis of a single use case, they end up using it for more and more use cases over time. We have sold private wireless networks into ports, mines, factories and utilities to meet the needs of a single use case, such as video monitoring of gantry cranes, remote control of autonomous ore trucks, coordinating automated guided vehicles (AGVs) or managing distributed energy resources in smart grids. But what inevitably happens is that once it is in place other operational teams realize that the LTE/4.9G network will solve their connectivity issues and they start using it as well.
This might be characterized as backing your way into a digital platform strategy but, hey, whatever works, right? The foundational ingredient to any digital transformation is connectivity, so in many ways it makes sense that private wireless is the glue. If you can’t connect all your processes, how do you create a single, seamless end-to-end digitally enabled business?
4.9G and 5G can play this role because they finally overcome the limitations of existing network technologies. Cabled Ethernet has many of the right performance characteristics, but cabling is expensive to install and re-configure, and it doesn’t work for anything that is moving. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, sigFox/LoRa are all non-deterministic, best-effort networking technologies that, while they have their roles, can’t provide the predictable performance that most industrial use cases demand.
On the other hand, LTE is a deterministic, highly secure network technology that has the capacity and low-latency performance of Ethernet. It is a mobile wireless technology, perfect for things that move, even at high speeds, and it has also been engineered to support low-powered IoT devices. As the next-to-last step, it can be seamlessly migrated to 5G, which will meet the needs of virtually every use case and give rise to many use cases we haven’t even imagined yet.
There is no shame in backing your way into a digital platform strategy. Just look at AWS, the only profitable part of Amazon’s business; it was actually an afterthought. They built their cloud platform to serve their e-commerce business and then realized that cloud platforms were actually something everyone needed.
But if you want to do Industry 4.0 right, make private wireless part of an overall transformational strategy that will put digital at the heart of your business, not just an enabler of a single use case. This holiday season, make friends with your IT department and give them the gift of private wireless, the gift that keeps on giving and giving and giving and giving — hey, maybe that’s why it’s called 4G!
Happy holidays everyone.
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