Private LTE/5G Networks: A Primer for Developers

Wednesday 8/14/19 09:00am
Posted By Christine Jorgensen
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Internet of Things (IoT) devices, sensors, applications and mobile connectivity are designed to improve product quality, increase productivity, and enhance safety in many industrial workplaces. For those of us in the technology sector, it might seem like IoT services and sensors are everywhere, but there are still many industries where data is collected manually. In agriculture, for example, farmers may walk miles across fields to check the moisture content of their soil. In mining, miners could travel miles below ground to monitor ambient air quality levels. In oil and gas, employees sometimes climb three hundred-foot staircases multiple times a day to check tank pressure readings.

As a developer you may be tasked with introducing IoT solutions to these industries, and you may face many challenges including data connectivity issues. Considering the sheer size, remoteness, physical complexity, and the type of work performed at these locations, you can start to see that many wireless technology solutions are not able to address all requirements. This is where a private network based on LTE or 5G might be able to help.

What is a Private LTE/5G Network?

We are familiar with the existing public LTE/5G networks operated by telco service providers. The telco generally manages the network equipment and provides generic voice/data services from cell towers to a large base of customers using exclusively licensed spectrum. A private LTE/5G network (also called a private cellular network) on the other hand, uses the same technology as the public networks, but it allows an enterprise to own and control its own LTE or 5G network to serve a limited geographic area with optimized services using dedicated equipment.

These private LTE/5G networks may work on licensed and/or unlicensed spectrum, may be managed by the enterprise or a service provider, and can be optimized and configured for very specific data or security needs. They are designed to meet a variety of needs for longer distances and higher performance (where Wi-Fi or low power wide area networks (LPWANs) may not be suitable)[1], as well as to avoid dependency on a shared service like a public cellular network which may not meet high reliability/low-latency needs. Additionally, they may not even be available at some remote locations. A key component to a private LTE/5G network is that it is designed to confine network traffic to a localized area (or the closest boundaries possible) using dedicated equipment, which allows the enterprise to decide what data stay on premises and what data goes to the cloud.

Industrial IoT Requirements

By deploying private LTE/5G networks, vast and complex locales can support the digital transformation of their mission-critical and other innovative services. Revisiting the three examples from above, we can see how a private LTE/5G solution could meet their specific IoT demands for the following challenges:

  • Wide Coverage - in the agricultural field, these remote areas are often not covered by public wireless infrastructure. Their own private network could be installed to provide access across this distance. The wide coverage also translates into deeper coverage inside buildings and around equipment in areas such as container ports, warehouses or other transportation hubs.
  • Predictable Low Latency - for the mine, the network could be tailored for application delivery prioritization to ensure that any data specific to safety is given the highest priority through quality of service (QoS).
  • High Reliability - the oil storage tanks could be remotely monitored as the latency challenge in these physical environments (such as that caused by the large amount of metal used in tank construction) has been lessened.

Security also plays an important role for all these industries. A private LTE/5G network has cellular-grade security, which is designed to keep sensitive data encrypted, authenticated, protected, and local to the premises.

Private LTE/5G networks are also facilitating edge computing[2] architectures in IoT, where cloud services augment on-device processing. Here, cloud services work in concert with edge devices to distribute responsibilities while pushing intelligence near to the edge or directly onto edge devices. Such configurations may be augmented with local edge cloud servers for low latency services using local data, while limiting the amount of data that has to be sent to the cloud over the Internet.

Private LTE Network Use Cases

Now that we understand how private cellular networks can be a viable solution for these challenging industrial applications, here are a few real-world examples of private LTE networks that show how deploying this dedicated, secure, ultra-high-quality network was beneficial:

A Large Mine is using private LTE to support a variety of safety and production-critical systems, like in-pit CCTV monitoring, intelligent earthmoving, telemetry, and various other monitoring services and sensors. They improved reliability and resiliency for production and safety-critical services because the LTE network operates on a licensed frequency (no interference). They also prioritized network traffic (QoS) so safety and production-critical traffic could be given priority over corporate traffic.

A Complex Warehouse that fulfills pick-and-pack customer orders using robots and control software is using private LTE to meet mobility, connection density, reliability, and low latency needs. Private LTE helped them meet strict performance requirements needed to control thousands of fast-moving robots from a single base station in a very dense area. Private LTE put the manufacturing site’s network on a different frequency so robotic devices didn’t have to compete for coverage. With priority and preemption, a private LTE network also provided a higher QoS for particular devices. Video surveillance in these facilities required hundreds of video cameras to be streamed simultaneously to monitor activities for safety. LTE is designed to meet these strict performance requirements.

A Large Power Generation & Distribution Center has supported services such as predictive diagnostics, workforce management, machine automation and safety of plant operations. Private LTE provided integrated communications between personnel, sensors, machines and applications. Services included voice-over-LTE services, very-low-latency control systems, monitoring of moving vehicles, live audio-video communication among plant personnel. It also allowed for the sending and receiving of alarms from fixed or mobile body-worn sensors and provided service continuity during critical emergency situations.

You can read more about these uses cases in this Private LTE Networks whitepaper. See Figure 2 for additional ideas for private LTE/5G networks.

Use Case TypeDescription
Automation & Industry 4.0
  • Factory-floor robotics–e.g., wireless robots introduce much greater flexibility to reconfigure production lines
  • Logistics and warehousing–e.g.,pick-and-pack machines; often considered under the banner of "Industry 4.0"
  • Typically focused very dense deployments with low latency and high reliability requirements
Mission-Critical Services
  • To monitor and control critical infrastructure–e.g., electricity distribution grids, power plants, etc.
  • Public safety agencies often need to create closed user group ad hoc networks at the scene of emergency
  • Government & military agencies want dedicated, highly available networks at their facilities – e.g., the Finnish government has pioneered this model
Primary Industries
  • Locations often not covered by public wireless infrastructure
  • Very diverse sector from mining to agriculture, making increasing use of automated machinery
  • Often requires hardened equipment with good link budget for low-density long-range coverage
Venue Services
  • Public venues such as airports, stadiums, hospitals, ports
  • These venueshave many users (internal, contractor, public), some of which have requirements for fast, highly secure access
  • Private network can be "sliced" (configured) for different user groups

Figure 2 Private LTE/5G Network Use Cases
Source: Heavy Reading

What’s Coming Next - 5G

The biggest impact for industrial IoT may come with the ability of 5G to reliably handle massive data volumes, with ultra-reliable low latency communication. The improvements that come with 5G cellular networks will support private LTE/5G networks to open new opportunities in automation such as reconfigurable factories, mobile robots, AR, machine vision and many more. 5G has been also been designed with interoperability in mind. This means that you can mix equipment from different suppliers without compromising performance. Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. (QTI) is facilitating this with its industry ecosystem to futureproof the path to 5G, which allows industrial IoT solutions to enjoy the benefits of LTE today and then adopt 5G technologies on an as-needed basis. For a more in-depth look at private 5G networks here’s a great article with accompanying whitepaper by Heavy Reading.

We at QDN are excited to provide the foundational technologies that can support developers like you to make even more improvements and increases in quality, productivity, and safety in many industrial workplaces. This blog is just the tip of the iceberg for information on private LTE/5G networking. Check out our 5G industrial IoT web page for additional information, then let us know how you are transforming your industry!