We’ve been speaking professionally about pervasive computing and the Internet of Things since the late 1990s when most people in business had no idea what we were talking about. Now everybody knows what we’re talking about, and many companies are trying to take part in it, but “giving the world a digital nervous system” has turned out to be remarkably difficult.
If corporate IP battles and geopolitics don’t bring you to your knees, the most basic technical issues will—for example, achieving secure, reliable, customizable, affordable wireless connectivity for devices. Just ask anyone caught between the performance failures of WiFi and the onerous per-bit cellular rates of the major carriers.
But the great virtue of technology problems is that sooner or later they all come out in the wash. Today, connecting things to other things and having them work as planned, and not going broke in the process, is almost solved at last. One solution gaining traction is private cellular networks, which means a private cellular network delivered on shared spectrum (as opposed to the licensed cellular spectrum that carriers use), and configurable for everything from simple sensor data to high-performance video.
Because wireless spectrum is a finite physical resource, the political solution had to precede the technical one in this case. Innovators evangelized the idea for a few years, and then governmental agencies allocated the spectrum to make it possible. Thanks to WiFi’s incurable performance and security failings, and the cost of commercial cellular service, “LTE performance with WiFi simplicity” is an idea whose time has come.
The Advent of Private Cellular Networks for Industrial and Manufacturing Applications
One of the most compelling opportunities Private LTE enables is the expansion of wireless cellular into new mission-critical markets that cellular has not addressed in the past because the traditional carrier business model has been all about maintaining control of the network and its use.
Most of these new mission-critical applications require a new network management and service delivery model that shifts control of the network to a “neutral host” model where end customers and domain-focused players can deploy and leverage wireless in new applications. Breaking the wireless carrier business model will allow this expansion to occur.
New networking technologies are reshaping how manufacturing businesses operate. It starts with the proliferation of both mobile “human-connected” devices and machine-connected IoT devices, which allow us to gather exponentially more data. Distributed information architectures enable far more efficient and fluid fusion of data which, in turn, enables us to capture, model and analyze information through local and cloud computational resources.
The next cycle of technology innovation and network development in the smart connected systems arena is setting the stage for a multi-year wave of growth in the industrial and manufacturing arenas based on the convergence of these innovations.
In today’s industrial enterprises many managers feel that they do not have enough data, the right data or reliable data to make accurate business decisions. Even information that seems common, such as accurate profit and cost information, often proves to be elusive. Some reasons for this are siloed and inaccessible storage processes for data, unclear understanding of how to extract value from data and the absence of data that is not being collected. This has often prevented industrial firms from successfully leveraging the data flowing from their equipment and operations.
New private cellular networks will help solve these challenges. These networks can act as “overlays” to existing network infrastructure in plants and factories and enable new modes of data collection, aggregation and analysis.
Private networks enable new applications and use cases such as:
- The widespread collection of data to inform maintenance
- Asset management and modernization
- Video and security analytics
- Flexible production lines
- “Always connected” workers
Ecosystems Are Required to Succeed
For this disruption of the carriers’ position to occur, however, a robust ecosystem needs to develop around private cellular networks. Many vendor maneuvers point to a much-anticipated future for connected things, but no one would argue that the necessary ecosystem exists yet. However, if private cellular—and ultimately its 5G progeny—continues to evolve, it will finally break the lock that wireless carriers have had on utilizing cellular in mission-critical smart systems applications. Industry is poised to leap on it given that connectivity is more than half the cost of Industrial IoT solutions.
Beyond the reduced cost of secure connectivity, Private LTE also offers the promise of managing diverse networks that do everything companies need simultaneously, even in operationally intensive environments—from low-power, low-bit-rate sensors to business-critical functions like control of autonomous vehicles, voice communication, or high-performance video. This is possible because hybrid networks can be “sliced” (configured) via software, which leads to much more pervasive network integration for all connected things.
The key architects of this new Private LTE ecosystem will need to understand how to create whole new markets by enabling three critical dimensions:
1) Platforms that address the needs of sub-markets with customization
2) Broad product portfolios that include a wide variety of processing, connectivity, security, and interoperability capabilities
3) Diverse alliances and partnerships to enable a wide range of capabilities—including network management, software development tools, and vertical application solutions, among others
Realizing the potential of new markets will also require the formation of new ecosystems where innovation will be driven by a collaborative community—from customers, from partners, and from their own people. To do this, they’ll need to:
Target the Highest Value Customer Applications. Utilizing higher performance and more reliable Private LTE networking technology to address diverse mission-critical and industrial segments will open up many new applications where wireless use has been inhibited. Focusing on the right opportunities with the right partners will be a critical success factor.
Understand the Entire End-to-End Customer Experience. Companies often fail to develop networking solutions focused on the right capabilities and benefits because they don’t have a good understanding of what users and customers are trying to achieve and how they want to achieve it. Players can increase their chances of success by understanding the unique wireless networking requirements (i.e. performance, reliability, latency, managed services, etc.) in new applications such as safety-critical real-time location systems.
Look for Non-Conflicting Business Models That Encourage Collaboration. Collaborative ecosystems are coalitions of self-motivated market participants that pursue a common goal, not mere subcontractors tied to a “command and control” scheme. Successful market development for new privately managed wireless networks will depend upon understanding and choosing new or modified business models. As control of these networks shifts to more neutral hosts, many new and novel managed services business models could and should emerge.
Build Open Collaboration / Align Partner Behaviors. Seemingly superior offerings can also fail because ecosystem partners have no incentive to participate. The customer is buying an experience with a desired result, and the ecosystem partners must work in concert to create a superior experience that provides tangible benefits to all participants. Successful ecosystems are usually composed of proactive participants, not simply a group of companies in and around a particular market space. Accordingly, a community’s design needs to allow participants to invest resources and reap rewards—indeed, to innovate openly with one another—while pursuing individual interests.
Act Early, Act Often. Assembling a collaborative ecosystem calls for a balance of timing and participants. Most collaborative opportunities will fail and re-form as learning grows. These communities do not necessarily have a finite window, but they need to be initiated early and gain momentum before a competitive ecosystem emerges in its place.