The mood in the 5G Arena at Hannover Messe is muted, same as last year. All the buzz and excitement about private / industrial 5G at MWC, which seemed almost to bubble-over in the tight-knit halls of the Fira de Barcelona as the late winter sun broke through, is entirely dissipated in the wide open spaces of the Hanover Fairgrounds, where a little late-winter snow has started to fall. But it probably wasn’t there to start with. This is a different venue, and a very different show. 

This is the largest exhibition ground in the world; an old aircraft works with a life all of its own: permanent restaurants; buses and roundabouts, patches of green; kids in raincoats; a supermarket selling mops and power tools. The car parks are plentiful, and also full – which, along with the fact that half the keynotes are in German, gives a sense this is more Industrie 4.0 than Industry 4.0. But there is plenty of buzz; it’s just not in hall 14, and it’s not much about 5G. 

Which is probably about right, even if it feels here like industrial 5G could do with a little more love. But that is where 5G is right now, and where it should be. Because 5G is not the central protagonist in this tale of industrial revolution; no no more than AI (certainly), and no less than IoT. The real hero is the enterprise, of course (stupid!), and the big machinery suppliers in halls five-to-nine have been serving enterprises for 100 years, in some cases.

This is their show, and they have more important stuff to sell (antriebs-technik, fluid-technik, robotik etc). Industrial 5G is a sideshow, by contrast, and coming to terms with the fact. The industrial market might be moved, but it will not be rushed; 5G will find its mark, like IoT has, but it will take time. That was the message from the 5G-ACIA in the first keynote at the 5G Arena – now working under the moniker, 5G & Industrial Wireless Arena, and sharing floor space with LoRaWAN, and others.

The 5G-ACIA sounded realistic and hopeful, but also frustrated that 5G has not been more quickly embraced in manufacturing. Its comments on stage, and on a booth tour after, chimed with most (realistic) discussions at MWC. The industrial 5G market is maturing rather well, everyone agrees, despite the “chicken-and-egg” challenge of technology and the caution of industry. Both of which are right and proper, actually, and should have been taken into account from the start.

Andreas Mueller, general chair at the 5G-ACIA (and 5G/6G ‘leader’ at Bosch), said: “The vast majority of [5G] money is still in the consumer business, and the industrial domain is still a little behind original expectations. It is not where we expected it would be in 2024.” Indeed, Afif Osseiran, general chair at the 5G-ACIA (and director of industry engagements and research at Ericsson), on stage with Mueller, quoted (mostly) GSA numbers that sounded a little underwhelming.

They go like this: 1,356 private cellular networks, as of March 2024 (versus “slightly above” 1,000 a year ago), of which 308 are 5G-based (versus “slightly less than” 250, which is “just less than” 20 percent growth in the year), 46 are standalone 5G (SA), and 20-30 percent are “commercial” (versus proofs), and 20-40 percent are in manufacturing plants of one kind or another. Manufacturing, the original 5G-ACIA care, will grow as a proportion, said Osseiran.

As well: the 2028 private-networks forecast has been adjusted down, from around 14,000 to 11,900; there is currently about 26GB of monthly traffic per “subscriber”, as of November 2023 (versus 15GB). So a mixed bag. “We will start to see real pick-up in three-to-five years, extended from two years,” said Osseiran, adding that “IoT will play a major role” – if the latest Ericsson Mobility report (which talks about “almost 1.5 billion IoT connections versus last year”) is to be believed.

“Major suppliers issued a warning that 2023/24 will be difficult years,” he said. “More networks are deployed, but there is slightly slower progress.” Some additional stats and facts: Germany has issued 387 licences for enterprises to deploy private 5G in the 3.7-3.8 GHz spectrum band, and 19 to deploy in the 26 GHz band; there are 219 industrial 5G routers about today, apparently, with a few choice specimens displayed on a new 5G-ACIA ‘hero’ wall; ‘vertical’ spectrum will be available pronto in Switzerland and Spain (sometimes via mobile operators).

Given private 5G sales to Industry 4.0 remain rather slow, albeit perfectly steady, the 5G-ACIA has extended its reach (“to lift 5G to the next level”), said Mueller, by addressing new geographies and new industries. It held a “huge event” with 500-odd delegates in Taipei, in Taiwan, in December – which “reflects huge global momentum behind 5G in industry”, he said. It now has 97 member companies, drawn from the ICT (mostly telecoms) and OT (mostly industrial) tech suppliers.

“But we are still behind expectations,” said Mueller. “So we have to shift the focus from tech development, which we have done lots of in the last few years, to ecosystem development.” As such, the 5G-ACIA has introduced a new membership category for “end users”, he said – for “those running factories”. They will get all the research and support that goes to signed-up 5G-ACIA companies. But 5G-ACIA is putting more focus on Asia and the Americas, as well.

“We are a global organisation, but we are based in Europe… But you can’t serve Southeast Asia and the USA from Frankfurt.” To this end, the group has elected new ambassadors for China, Japan, and the US, tasked with strengthening its footprint, membership, and activities in each region. “There will be more in the future,” said Mueller. “They will help to build the global ecosystem.” This is the key, in the end, he suggested.

The 5G-ACIA has worked well to bring the ICT and OT crowds together in and around the 3GPP process to develop 5G as an industrial-grade technology for smart manufacturing, in particular. Mueller cited its work on time-sensitive networking (TSN), reduced capability 5G (RedCap), and various highly politicised industrial protocol data unit (PDU) transmission technologies, such as with OPC-UA, PROFINET, PROFISAFE, and so on.

“Private networks, as well,” he said, “which didn’t exist when we started 5G-ACIA.” Spectrum liberalisation and software integration, too, he added. The point is that all this work has been rather lost while chip makers and machine makers bury their heads in the sand and wait for deployments to hit a critical mass, and enterprises refuse to install networks until the equipment is ready to plug into it. “What’s missing is a classic chicken-and-egg challenge,” he said. 

Hence the ecosystem-building in global markets. The other thing for the 5G-ACIA, said Mueller, is to expand its focus beyond just discrete and process manufacturing. “There are lots of similarities with other industries – initially with ports and mining, where coverage is a challenge, [but] that’s just the first wave. If it goes well, we will add others. It is all part of adding to that critical mass, to get past this chicken-and-egg.”

He said, again: “The real number [of private 5G deployments] should be higher. The trend is right, but the numbers should be higher.” And recapped the 5G-ACIA response about ecosystem building, as explained above. While the rest of Industry 4.0 got buzzed about a new age of industrial automation and sustainability in noisier halls – where generative AI was the clearest plot twist, but IoT sensors and digital twins, and all the rest also featured heavily. Even 5G was there.

In the end, maybe the problem with 5G at Hannover Messe is just its attempt to hog a whole hall. But you know, chicken-and-egg – you can see why the message matters, and the 5G-ACIA should be applauded for fanning the flames. It will catch fire soon enough, the logic goes.

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