Private LTE: Connecting the 4th Industrial Revolution
In the future, everything will be connected, and we will know the real-time state of everything. Data will be sent from every type of imaginable sensor and processed by AI and machine learning in the Cloud. This data will provide immediate insight into the flow of self-driving vehicles on a highway, the temperature of a piece of equipment on a factory floor, how long a customer stands in front of a grocery store shelving product display, the growth of micrometer size surface cracks on a structural beam on a bridge, the amount of water that falls on a particular part of a farm and millions of other possible sensor observations. We will have billions upon billions of sensors gathering data from every possible variable we want to monitor. All this data will allow for an incredible optimization, and informed decision-making, of the components that affect human life and all life on this planet.
Welcome to Industry 4.0.
One of the most significant challenges of Industry 4.0, will be the medium to connect all these devices to the Cloud. So how will we connect all these devices cost-effectively and securely? For Industry 4.0 to happen, we need a wireless medium (or mediums) of communication that allows us to connect devices cost-effectively and securely so that their data can be processed and evaluated. For any technical revolution to happen, it must be cost-effective. The early price of a home computer was over $5,000 adjusted for inflation; today, you can buy a home computer for $500.
As of 2022, we have many options to connect the billions of sensors soon to invade every corner of our society. We could cable them up with good old-fashioned fiber and ethernet, utilize Wi-Fi, or leverage some of the new wireless technologies like LPWAN, Private LTE, or Millimeter Wave. Each option has strengths and weaknesses, and some will be a better fit for Industry 4.0.One of the most important considerations that make up the sensors of Industry 4.0 will be their many use-cases and requirements. These devices will be placed in every possible environment, from Farmland to manufacturing floors, to grocery stores, inside vehicles, to surgery rooms, on boats, inside and outside schools, and in every possible part of our lives, including the ones we rarely see.
Some of these devices will be mobile, often moved, moving, or repositioned to optimize their placement to collect data. Some will be temporary to measure a specific rare event; others will be permanent, some will send lots of data, and others very little. For many of these devices, their data will be critically important, and their data will be prioritized relative to other devices that share their connection medium. And for some devices, their data will need to be highly secure…imagine the data sent from self-driving car to self-driving car on the highway at high speeds; this data cannot be hacked. Like people, these sensors will come in all kinds of shapes and sizes and will lead very different lives depending on their purpose.
The Cabling Option
The electrical contracting industry would love to have every one of these billions of devices cabled up with fiber and ethernet. This would take an army of contractors 1,000 years to complete and use most of the sand from every beach to make the fiber option cable. Indeed, some small percentage of these devices will enjoy the luxury of being connected by their local electrical contractor. However, the cost of labor and materials to connect each of these devices via ethernet and fiber would be cost-prohibitive and make it difficult to justify deploying the vast array of sensors that will make Industry 4.0 possible.
The Wi-Fi Option
Although a relatively good wireless medium to connect laptops in an office building or our homes, Wi-Fi will not be the wireless “mother” of industry 4.0. The most significant limitation of Wi-Fi is its lack of range. Wi-Fi was developed as an unlicensed wireless technology to provide connectivity within a few hundred feet of an access point. Interference is also a challenge with Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi operates as unlicensed spectrum in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz range, along with BLE and other wireless technologies. Assuring the availability of spectrum for Wi-Fi devices is difficult, and the lack of robust native security features means that Wi-Fi probably won’t be the leader in connecting the billions of devices up to the Cloud in industry 4.0.
The Millimeter Wave Option
As a technology, Millimeter Wave (mmWave) shows a lot of promise to help kickstart Industry 4.0. With its high data capacity and decent distance (about a mile or so), it will undoubtedly be a participant in connecting the billions of future sensors. It does require line-of-site to work and is heavily impacted by moisture in the atmosphere. We will certainly see it used in non-critical applications and drier climate areas where the weather is less of a factor.
LPWAN as an Option
Many competing technologies are entering the Low-Power Wide-Area Networking market to allow sensors to send small amounts of data over long distances efficiently. From LoraWAN to SigFox to LTE-M, each of these technologies offers a different approach to communicating with low power over long distances in both licensed and unlicensed spectrum. In cities, LPWAN can penetrate buildings effectively and travel for a few miles; in suburban and rural areas, LPWAN will allow devices to send data for over 10+ miles. LPWAN will undoubtedly be a big player in Industry 4.0. However, work still needs to be done to mitigate potential interference with other nearby networks and a leading LPWAN technology needs to emerge to have the IOT industry move to support a connectivity standard.
And now, Private LTE
Out of all the existing available technologies to connect the billions of devices coming online in Industry 4.0, Private LTE offers significant advantages over many of the other wireless solutions. First, Private LTE offers very low-latency communication with a significant coverage range. Outdoor Private LTE devices can operate with a power setting of as high as 47dBm, and do not require line of sight like mmWave. With outdoor coverage of 2-4 miles (potential to increase to 5+ miles with the discussion of Class C devices), a single base station can connect to around 100 devices. Private LTE allows network teams to prioritize traffic and set QoS down to the device level. A self-driving car traveling down the freeway communicating with the car in front of it won’t get bumped off the network by a temperature sensor.
Private LTE indoor devices operate at lower power than outdoor devices. However, they can still provide coverage of around 5,000 – 7,000 sq. ft. per device in a typical office building, and 7,000 -25,000 sq. ft. in large open spaces like warehouses and manufacturing floors. The reason that Private LTE can cover a much larger area indoors than typical Wi-Fi devices is due to the properties of LTE. LTE does not suffer signal degradation at its coverage edge like Wi-Fi and is very effective at handling multipath (the effect of the signal bouncing off objects and arriving at the receiver at different times). These characteristics allow indoor manufacturing and industrial facilities, warehouses, shopping centers, and sports facilities with very high ceilings to cover more significant areas, in the 10s of thousands of sq. ft. with a single device, compared to Wi-Fi. No more dropping an access point from the ceiling to 25 feet to provide coverage; in challenging RF indoor environments, Private LTE will be very cost-effective compared to traditional wireless technologies indoors.
When it comes to security; LTE is one of the most secure wireless platforms available to non-government entities. With its built-in SIM/eSIM security, over-the-air encryption (while authenticating and communicating), and native IPsec routing standard for the core EPC network and backhaul, Private LTE offers carrier-grade protection to anyone operating a Private LTE network. It should. The wireless carriers use LTE.
And then there is Private LTEs’ superpower…the SAS. The SAS or Spectrum Access System knows the location of every single access point, through geolocation. The SAS manages the slice of spectrum each Private LTE network operates on within the 150 MHz of available spectrum. The SAS automatically moves different Private LTE networks to different channels to avoid RF interference. This allows for many Private LTE networks to operate on top of, or near each other.
No single communication platform will enable the billions of devices that will soon live amongst us. Many technologies will enable these devices to communicate, and some of these technologies have yet to be developed. However, Private LTE and other wireless platforms like LPWAN and mmWave will enable the first phase of Industry 4.0.