Car maker Audi, like other giants of German manufacturing, is sitting on a tranche of vacant radio spectrum that has been liberated by the German telecoms regulator for test purposes ahead of its official release as an industrial band with the country’s wider 5G auction.
It is a model that will likely be copied in other European markets in different bands, and one that is effectively matched in the US with the redeployment of CBRS spectrum at 3.5 GHz for private and shared network access.
It has put the old telecoms market in a spin, just as it seeks to reinvent itself for industry. Everyone wants a piece of the 5G action, it seems, and the new spectrum rules promise to make operators of everyone.
The message from Audi, however, is that everything is still on the table. “That’s right; everything’s on the table – that’s the message,” comments Henning Löser, head of Audi’s production lab.
Audi has been testing localised versions of LTE and 5G for vehicle production in lab conditions with Swedish vendor Ericsson since August 2018. Its test spectrum is somewhere in the neighbourhood of the 3.7-3.8 GHz allowance, which BNetzA, the local regulator, will make available to German industry.
The intrigue around the control-freakery of the industrial set, which wants control of factory operations, and the sudden ambition of the operator community, which wants a new lease of life, is premature, suggests Löser.
“Right now, the technology is still developing. We need to figure out what this technology can do. We don’t even know all of the use cases that will come up in the future. Okay, the technology is really cool, but we first need to know the problems it can solve – which we couldn’t solve before,” he says.
It seems meaningful, but the meaning is vague. Elsewhere, at the same event, conversations with Deutsche Telekomand Nokia say 90 per cent of industrial use cases can be adequately served by LTE. We will get into the weeds on this with Löser, momentarily, in discussion of the experiments Audi is running with industrial 5G and the use cases it could enable.
But it is worth just tidying up around network management first. “To get to the very low frequencies, you need to manage it locally,” says Löser. To be clear, then, public networks are out of the question for Audi et al, at least for their critical operations. They want private networks.
Indeed, Audi’s parent Volkswagen said last month it will build its own 5G networks from 2020. The question is who will operate them – whether the secret sauce of industrial networking is in the telecoms knowhow or the domain expertise. The perception is Germany’s industrial artistocrats, in possession of their own spectrum, will keep the shutters down on their cellular networks, too.
“Will they really do it themselves, or will they hire a company to support for them? It’s their network, whatever – the data stays on the premises. That’s something we want as well, for sure,” says Löser.
In Hanover, Deutsche Telekom has just presented its hybrid model for industrial ‘campus networks’, which combines public and private layers in the same licensed spectrum. Would Audi let Deutsche Telekom, say, or any third party in fact, run its private cellular network?
“Why not? We have contracts with companies that help us operate our wi-fi networks, and we will most likely do the same with 5G. Because it’s not our business to operate a cellular network. What we want is the ultra-reliable low-latency communication; then we’ll figure out who will make us the best offer to operate a network like that.”
So Audi may well go to Deutsche Telekom, say, to manage its LTE and 5G networks? “Sure – or Vodafone, or O2, or a local operator, or even the city itself. And we’ll most likely have a contract that goes for a couple of years, and look for a new supplier every couple of years.”
Is there any scenario where Audi use public or shared spectrum? Would it ever place industrial communications in a slice of public network, while critical business stays in its localised 3.7-3.8GHz spectrum? Perhaps, says Löser. “It is not something we’re talking about, but it would depend on the use case. If we have reason to do that, then, yes, we would talk about it.”
Everything is on the table, like he says. It is too early to draw conclusions about how this perceived tussle over control of industrial networks will play out. The more pressing concern, in practical terms, is why to deploy LTE and 5G in the first place. This is what Löser’s team at Audi’s prodction lab is engaged with.