Taking place in Barcelona this week (Feb 27 – March 2) is Mobile World Congress (MWC), the largest and most important event each year for the mobile telecoms industry. While the show may be primarily perceived as a marketing platform for mobile handset makers touting shiny new devices replete with sharper screens and yet more megapixels, dig beneath the headlines of LG’s G6, Huawei’s P10 and Sony’s Xperia XZ Premium smartphones, and of course the re-release of the legendary Nokia 3310 (dumb) phone, and you’ll find major developments around the enabling communications technologies, chiefly 5G, and see the increasing importance of IoT and Industrial IoT to the mobile industry. So let’s take a look at some of the happenings at MWC over the last few days.
How about a 5G-enabled Smart Factory? Well, this year in Barcelona, technology supplier Ericsson and China Mobile (the world’s largest mobile operator by subscribers) are showing off a a jointly developed prototype, which simulates an assembly line and features 5G to PLC connectivity. As previously detailed on this blog, this next evolution of cellular network technology, particularly its ultra-low latency, brings 5G firmly into the realm of time-critical industrial applications. Referencing the country’s Made-in-China manufacturing initiative, a China Mobile spokesman said, “This joint demonstration showcases how 5G technology is useful in broad industry areas, especially in the smart factory which is the key part of the Made-in-China 2025.”
Ericsson also features prominently in the announcement of the 5G Innovators Initiative (5GI2). Launched by Ericsson and Intel Corp, and with a view to accelerating 5G adoption, 5GI2 will explore, test and innovate with 5G network and distributed edge technologies. As an open industry initiative, it operates on a collaborative model; GE, Honeywell and UC Berkeley are the first participants to join. Interestingly, 5GI2 will focus initially on Industrial IoT, developing pilots for application of technologies, including augmented and virtual reality, for drone surveillance of hazardous environments. Subsequent work is expected to encompass autonomous driving, smart cities, and connected healthcare.
As for Nokia, in his Wednesday morning keynote speech on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, president and CEO Rajeev Suri identified 5G as the key network for enabling innovations such as connected, collaborative robots and self-driving cars. And out on the show floor, Nokia with partner China Mobile is demonstrating 5G-enabled synchronized collaboration of robots. The Finnish company’s foray in IoT also includes the new Nokia worldwide IoT network grid (Nokia WING), for managing the IoT connectivity and services needs of a client’s assets across geographical borders. So for example, freight containers can be tracked as they move around the globe without the need to involve multiple technology providers.
Qualcomm, the American chip and communications equipment supplier, announced its support for the Android Things operating system on Snapdragon 210 processors with X5 LTE modems. Android Things OS is a new vertical of Android designed specifically for IoT devices, and Snapdragon processors now offer integrated 4G LTE support for this OS. This combination is designed to support IoT applications requiring robust, security-focused and managed connectivity, including remote video monitoring, asset tracking, and manufacturing.
Qualcomm is also collaborating with GE and Nokia to develop a private LTE network for the IIoT market, targeting operations in remote locations or temporary sites, such as mines, power plants and offshore oil platforms, where connectivity can be challenging. Private LTE-based networks enable companies to own and manage their own LTE network without requiring licensed spectrum.
A couple of announcements from mobile operators. AT&T is to collaborate with Current in an exclusive agreement to build smart city applications across the United States and Mexico. Current is a GE start-up business that blends energy technologies like LED and solar with networked sensors and the Predix IoT platform to make commercial buildings and industrial facilities more energy efficient and productive. AT&T will utilize outdoor LED lighting to create a digital infrastructure to help address issues like traffic flow, parking optimization, and air quality monitoring. And Deutsche Telekom is expanding implementation of NarrowBand-IoT (NB-IoT) technology across several European countries.
As a low power wide area (LPWA) network, NB-IoT targets IoT applications characterized by high frequency updates, small data volumes, and large numbers of sensors. In Germany, Deutsche Telekom is already running NB-IoT pilots in the areas of smart metering, smart parking and asset tracking. And in the Netherlands, where nationwide implementation of the NB-IoT network is scheduled to be completed this year, customers lined up to use the network include railway maintenance specialist Dual Inventive and sensor maker Smartsensors. MWC visitors can also witness a joint Deutsche Telekom/Samsung demonstration of two 5G-connected robot arms moving in perfect synchronization to transfer a box between two locations; this illustrate the industrial relevance of 5G Guaranteed Latency (GLA).
So some takeaways from all this. One is that as telecoms operators look for new revenue sources beyond that of traditional voice and mobile internet service provision to consumers, and as evidenced by more use cases and successful pilots, Industrial IoT as well as the broader IoT increasingly represent lucrative opportunities for delivering connectivity for things rather than just people. Secondly, for the technology suppliers to the industry, the activities are clearly around developing communications technology that can fulfil the very specific requirements of IIoT and IoT applications, with the future 5G clearly in focus at this year’ s Mobile World Congress. And finally, it’s intriguing to see collaborations not just between mobile operators and their technology suppliers, but now also involving large industrial technology companies of the likes of GE and Honeywell. Going forward, I would expect such relationships to expand and evolve.