Artist's rendering of the Internet of Things

How Private Cellular Networks Can Support Industrial IoT Connectivity

March 17, 2021
Mobile private network infrastructure offers industrial enterprises unique capabilities.

At a Glance:

  • Manufacturers can leverage private 4G LTE and 5G NR cellular networks to realize industrial IoT connectivity.
  • How do private and public cellular networks differ?
  • Is a private network the right fit for your manufacturing facility?

Manufacturers around the world are seeking to transform their businesses with Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) applications that increase automation, productivity and efficiency by digitizing a variety of factory operations and processes.

While existing connectivity technologies like Wi-Fi can support many of these IIoT applications, some manufacturers—including BMW at a plant in China, Mercedes Benz at a facility in Germany and Bosch at a factory in the United Kingdom—are beginning to use 4G LTE or 5G NR cellular technologies to set up private cellular networks that provide them with with additional connectivity capabilities for IIoT applications.

What are private cellular networks?

Referred to as “non-public networks” by 3GPP, the mobile telecommunications standards organization, private 4G LTE and 5G NR cellular networks use licensed, shared or unlicensed wireless spectrum to transmit data.

Private cellular networks use the same type of infrastructure—cellular networking base stations, small cells and other Radio Access Network (RAN) equipment—as public cellular networks. However, with public cellular networks, a Mobile Network Operator (MNO) owns, operates and controls all of the cellular network’s spectrum and infrastructure.

In addition, MNOs provide all of their customers with the same level of access to the network. With private cellular networks, an organization owns, operates or at least has some level of priority access to the network’s infrastructure or spectrum, though this level of ownership, operation and control can vary.

For example, manufacturers can deploy “full” private networks where they own the network’s wireless spectrum in addition to owning and operating the network’s base stations and other infrastructure, providing them with complete control of the network.

Alternatively, manufacturers can work with MNOs and other companies to build and operate a private cellular network on their behalf. With 5G NR, MNOs can even carve out a slice of their spectrum and then use their existing public network infrastructure to provide a manufacturer with a private 5G NR network.

Whether they have full or partial control over their private cellular network, manufacturers can use these networks to connect a wide variety of factory end-devices to the cloud. These devices include smartphones, laptops and other mobile devices, as well as embedded modules, routers and other IoT gateways that have been integrated into or connected to machines, AMRs, augmented reality headsets, employee wearables and other assets.

Why would a manufacturer want to deploy a private cellular network?

One reason manufacturers might want to complement their Wi-Fi or other networks with a private cellular network is that these networks allow them to benefit from some of the unique capabilities offered by cellular network technologies. With a private cellular network, they can take advantage of these cellular benefits without having to use a public cellular network, in which their control over their data and other aspects of the network is limited. 

For example, 4G LTE network technologies offer manufacturers strong mobility capabilities, which can help them maintain connectivity with assets that travel across wide distances in their factories. 4G LTE’s use of data packet scheduling helps make cellular networks more reliable. These networks also feature strong security, thanks to built-in encryption and the need for each end-device to have a SIM card installed in it to connect to the network.

5G NR builds on these benefits, providing very high data speeds, low latency, high end-device capacity, ultra-high reliability and other performance capabilities that help manufacturers support next-generation IIoT applications.

Such applications include enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) applications that require extremely fast data throughout; Massive Machine Type Communication (mMTC) applications that need to connect to large number of end-devices in a small area; and Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communications (uRLLC) applications that need low latencies of less than one millisecond or ultra-high reliable connections.

Private cellular networks also offer manufacturers two capabilities not offered by other network technologies—the ability to use public cellular networks as a backup to their network, and the ability to connect their assets to a public cellular network if they move out of range of their own private network. To enable such public network backup and roaming connectivity manufacturers need to outsource their private network’s operation to an MNO (so they can use same SIM for their private network and the MNO’s public network).

Alternatively, they can equip their end-devices with dual SIMs or a “smart” SIM card, allowing them to connect their end-device to both their private network and the MNO’s public network. They also need roaming or other agreements in place with the operator of the public cellular network if they plan to use its network.

How private cellular networks can help manufacturers deploy IIoT applications.

In conjunction with other wireless connectivity technologies, private cellular networks enable manufacturers to deploy a wide variety of IIoT applications. Among these:

  • Applications that benefit from the security offered by private cellular networks’ use of SIM cards
  • mMTC applications that collect and analyze large amounts of data from thousands of factory assets.
  • Augmented reality applications that use 5G NR’s low latency to guide technicians in the repair of machines in real-time.
  • Mobile IIoT applications that direct the movement of AMRs across the factory floor—or even to locations outside the factory—using both the factory’s private cellular network and public cellular networks.
  • Factory process automation applications that require the ultra-high reliability or low-latency of 5G NR.

These and other IIoT applications offer manufacturers an opportunity to leverage digital transformations to increase their factories’ automation, productivity and efficiency. By using private cellular networks to complement their other wireless networks, manufacturers can gain all the connectivity capabilities they need to support these IIoT applications while ushering in a new age of Industry 4.0.

Tom McLaughlin is SVP of Global Service Provider Sales at CommScope.

Editor’s Note: 4G LTE is short for “fourth generation long-term evolution” and 5G NR (New Radio) is a new radio access technology (RAT) developed by 3GPP for the 5G (Fifth Generation) mobile network.

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