The Industrial Evolution

Verizon envisions private 5G networks enabling Industry 4.0

Last week, Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg took to the virtual stage at CES 2021 to deliver his keynote address. As expected, Mr Vestberg’s presentation was all about 5G, with an emphasis on a handful of real-world applications and services that the carrier is either funding or building. Setting the tone for a new narrative about 5G at CES this year, the CEO refreshingly moved the conversation away from some of the hype of previous events to focus more on the benefits and opportunities the technology can enable (see Insight Report: CES 2021: Major Themes for further analysis).

Over the past few years, smartphone users have been promised blazing-fast data transfers, but as the roll-out of 5G networks in the US has happened in fits and starts, the reality of the pattern of technology launches began to show: more often than not, early hype leads to short-term disappointment. In the real world, these things take time.

This is particularly the case with 5G networks using millimetre-wave spectrum which require many more access points. This is the nature of the high-frequency beast: the signals carry more data at a faster pace, but not as far and not as forcefully, often struggling to make it through walls and even windows. After years of talk, Verizon now covers 59 cities in the US with its high-bandwidth 5G service, but you have to be in the right part of town to get the benefits.

Nonetheless, as carriers such as Verizon are quick to highlight, 5G is about more than just supporting smoother video streams and faster Uber hails. Many large companies, often working with carriers, are employing private 5G networks in a similar way to how companies launched intranets a few decades ago.

Verizon has certainly been one of the wireless carriers advocating the use of private 5G networks in enterprises. In this scenario, the network is built for dedicated and confined areas like factories, distribution centres and large retail stores, where businesses want to have high capacity and retain all the data, keeping it secure and storing it on site.

In December 2020, for example, Verizon announced partnerships with Honeywell and General Motors to install 5G at their facilities. Along with Wi-Fi access, 5G networks will be available to workers as well as machines, supporting smart manufacturing.

In his presentation at CES 2021, Mr Vestberg sought to move the 5G conversation forward. He outlined initiatives including: Verizon’s work with the US National Football League on an application that features video feeds from multiple cameras; a drone delivery programme that Verizon is expanding with UPS; a traffic management system that the carrier deployed with the city of San Jose in California; and an implementation of augmented reality to experience New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It was the second high-profile presentation in recent months from the Swede, who also secured a prestigious role at the launch event for Apple’s 5G-ready iPhone 12 in October 2020 (see Instant Insight: Apple Reveals 5G iPhone 12 Portfolio). That event coincided with a major expansion of Verizon’s 5G network, to more than 200 million people in the US, a figure that by the end of 2020 had risen to 230 million.

According to the CEO, “5G isn’t just another tech innovation. It’s the platform that makes other innovations possible”. This is a valid claim: 5G will be a major enabler of the fourth industrial revolution. Thanks to their ability to handle millions of connections with incredibly low latencies, the new networks will support a level of automation that goes beyond what current local area network connections could ever handle.

CES is, by definition and by title, geared toward consumer electronics, so Mr Vestberg didn’t go into detail about the potential changes that 5G will make in factories and offices in the coming years. But he did make it clear that industry adoption could be where we see many immediate changes.

We expect to hear a lot more about private 5G networks enabling smart fabrication, supported by artificial intelligence and a massive network of connected things. Industry is about to evolve further and faster than ever before.