How has the Pandemic Affected Private Network Adoption?

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According to Insight’s Private LTE Market Forecast, published in May 2021 and providing trends up to 2028, market valuation was $3.15 billion in 2020 and is expected to swell to $8.5 billion by 2028.

As we’ll explore in this article, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to shape the development of more reliable communications technology, while increasing the load on existing network provision.

Industrial IoT Adoption

The trend towards the increasing connectivity of machines, systems, production lines, tools, and vehicles within networks for large scale data uplift and analytics has generated a need for higher capacity, more secure and more reliable networks. 

There’ no point in having vast oceans of data at your fingertips or being able to remotely control complex systems if there are bottlenecks, power outages or security breaches. Fortunately, these risks can be mitigated by adopting a private secure network approach.

A quandary – there are huge benefits to global connectivity via the net, but also significant risks from cyber-crime, cyber-terrorism, or industrial espionage when companies send their data to a public or shared cloud resource. Owning and operating a private network reduces this risk and means companies know exactly where to begin to fix problems.

Capacity is assured since bandwidth is not being shared with other entities. Companies are not at the mercy of third-party data centers or signal limitations (other than the limits they have deemed acceptable within their set-up).

According to a McKinsey report, the IoT is expected to expand further into commercial and industrial applications with a threefold increase of devices between 2018 and 2023, and an anticipated 43 billion units online by the end of 2023. Investors are bullish about the IoT and are actively looking for opportunities, making it a good time to expand private networks to build additional capacity.

Cybersecurity Risk

Some high-profile cases have brought industrial cyber attacks to the fore in recent years.  The 2021 SonicWall Cyber Threat Report described a 62% increase in ransomware attacks since 2019, with over 304 million incidents and 32 million IoT malware attacks.

From temporarily increasing sodium hydroxide levels in Florida’s water supply to shutting down the colonial oil pipeline for several days, 2020-21 proved a newsworthy year for cyber criminals. 

These and a host of major ransomware attacks, including Brazil’s JBS meat processing operation ($11 million USD paid) and the Taiwanese Acer computer hardware firm ($50 million USD), made it clear there were plenty of vulnerabilities in outmoded corporate networks.

Mobile Network Limitations

Geographic coverage of public 5G networks lags behind demand at present, making it hard for highly distributed operations such as mining, transport, agriculture and utilities to ensure adequate communication coverage. Satellite phones are too expensive and old school walkie talkies aren’t reliable. Mining operations like those in Australia, Papua New Guinea and Peru have been early adopters of LTEs, whether 4,600 feet above sea level (Peru) or 6.5km underground (Australia).

Corporate private networks, whether LTE/5G, fixed wireless or municipal broadband, are providing use case specific solutions to capacity issues in far-flung locations and challenging terrains where communication is more important than global interconnectivity.

What Problems Has the Pandemic Caused?

While much is written about distributed data storage via public clouds, less has been said about the development of LTEs during the pandemic. In part, this may because it runs contrary to the prevailing narrative about greater global connectivity.

According to Allied Market Research, while the global private LTE market is anticipated to grow with a CAGR of 13.9% between 2020 and 2027, some sectors have seen growth occurring more slowly than it would absent the pandemic. This is in part due to temporary closures and productivity dips in hardware manufacturing plants, as well as a slump in the maintenance of private LTE base stations and towers.

The Allied report concludes, “due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the private LTE market is facing several challenges owing to declined consumer demand for smartphones, delay in the deployment of 5G networks […] and other factors which can impact negatively on market expansion.”

Bell Labs Consulting are more bullish in their forecasting.  Reported in a December 2021 article in Forbes they claim that “the pandemic sped up the adoption of digital communications technologies by an average of six years.”

Certainly, as industries return to post-pandemic business as usual, there’s reason to suspect that the positive adoption trends witnessed prior to the pandemic will rebound.

Case Studies

Here we present five case studies of commercial LTE network adoption during the pandemic, with particular emphasis on how these industries used the technology to adapt to the challenges of the moment.

Case Study 1: Healthcare

Kaiser Permanente CEO Kristan Kline is considering incorporating a private network in the CBRS 3.5GHz waveband, due to its improved penetration (over 5G) within buildings, which will prove particularly vital during robotic surgery procedures, the first of which he expects to witness during his career.

As IoT increases within hospitals, Kline has been reported as questioning whether current WiFi provision will be able to cope, so he’s either going to invest in a CBRS or 5G Private Network to gain competitive advantage in an increasingly demanding healthcare environment.

The blocker to Kline’s ambitions at present is that his financiers may not be willing to finance a CBRS system until medical device manufacturers are producing equipment capable of utilizing such a network. It’s a chicken and egg problem but one likely to be resolved soon.

Case Study 2: Education

In March 2021 Collinsville Community Unit District School (CUSD10) in Illinois launched a private LTE network to enable remote study access for more than 500 students in the Fairmont City and State Park communities.

IT company STEPcg installed Nokia and Cambium Networks equipment including a single LTE Broadband tower and four Nokia CBRS microcell installations to cover an area of approximately four square miles.

CUSD 10 Superintendent Dr. Mark B. Skertich said, “The pandemic heightened the fact not all of our students had connectivity and exposed the need to ensure all students had equal access whether at home or at school”. 

The network allowed equitable access during remote learning periods for all students. It is thought to be one of the very first Private LTE networks installed by a public school, and was financed with $300,000 of federal CARES stimulus funding.

Case Study 3: Manufacturing

Ottowa-based robotic control systems manufacturer Provectus Robotics had a problem in 2020: how to keep their business running and showcase products during lockdown?

The company has more than 25 years’ experience making robotic control and autonomous-vehicle systems with defense, agriculture, security, mining and construction applications. Demonstrating these cutting-edge technologies over a Zoom link wouldn’t cut it for their demanding clients.

Fortunately, the company had installed 4.9G/LTE modems in all their devices, allowing them to link with the robust Nokia L5 Innovation Center test facility nearby.  With a field of over 3km to operate in, low latency and strong connectivity even without line-of-sight, the company could illustrate both control and video systems without glitches or dropout.

Case Study 4: Aviation

Hub One partnered with Air France to give three Parisien airports a Private LTE/5G network to replace their outmoded Wi-Fi and TETRA technologies. Taking advantage of the reduction in traffic volume during the pandemic, Hub One installed 140 LTE base stations, broadcasting on the 2.6GHz spectrum band. 

They also initiated trials of around thirty IoT applications designed to run on the network, optimizing airport operations including baggage handling reconciliation and remote maintenance using video links.

Case Study 5: Energy

The Belgian North Sea wind farm project comprises 14 farms within Belgian and Dutch waters. In this remote and dangerous place, it’s vital to maintain a strong, reliable communications network as renewables innovate for the Industry 4.0 future.

Out of reach of land-based 5G provision, private networks were required to service drone surveillance, remote repair, data transfer and other IoT applications, across large geographical areas in sometimes extreme weather. 

Nokia’s 5G-ready Private LTE technology installed at each windfarm’s substations, complemented a pre-existing nCentric mesh network to ensure high-speed, reliable connections with low latency and broadband bandwidth. Turbine towers were fitted with leaky feeders to allow mobile connectivity for workers during construction or maintenance.

While the Mesh and 5G technology was pre-installed, the project was completed in 2020-21, with installation operations less severely impacted by COVID-19 than other industries.

Conclusion

Although the COVID-19 pandemic may have stalled some companies’ adoption of Private LTE networks, key industries such as energy, manufacturing and education have benefitted by adopting and installing Private LTE equipment during periods of lockdown. Sometimes these developments have been made through necessity (case study 2), and in other cases, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to advance technology (case study 4).

COVID-19 has provided many opportunities to demonstrate the necessity of reliable and secure private networks at times of emergency. Such urgent use cases can only advance the cause of Private LTE technology in the years to come. After all, necessity has always been the mother of invention.

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