Op-Ed: On the front line of industrial 5G deployment

I wanted to get to the bottom of what’s happening in the private 5G market so last month I traveled for 23 hours by car, plane and train from the U.S. to the border of Hungary and Ukraine.

Sounds bonkers, right? Well, it turns out I was right to make the trip, because not everything about this new, hot technology sector is as simple as telco equipment vendors’ marketing makes out.

Private cloud-native 5G networks have been a big story in 2023 – kicking off at Mobile World Congress — where Ericsson and Nokia both made significant private 5G announcements.

Nokia claims to be market leader in private 5G currently and says there are over 560 enterprises using its technology. And reams of case studies about successful private 5G implementations are just a Google search away (seriously... 14,700,000 results in .40 seconds? Calm down Internet!).

All these stories have something in common: they make private 5G sound like a straightforward way to reap incredible security, performance and total cost of ownership (TCO) benefits. As Nokia’s website puts it: “Industrial-grade private wireless makes it easy to embrace Industry 4.0.”

Does it, though? The truth is that moving to a new networking technology is almost never a snap.  And that was borne out on my trip to Hungary.

On the road again

I went to Hungary to visit the EWG Intermodal Terminal in Fényeslitke. Completed in 2018, the terminal is a key strategic railway staging post on the modern-day Silk Road, a.k.a. an East to West belt and rail route that begins in China and ends in Europe — and a main transport route for goods coming and going from Asia.

The EWG terminal is absolutely massive — 85 square hectares (equal to about 210 football fields); 10 kilometers of rail tracks; and four gigantic robot cranes that feel like they’ve wandered in from a Transformers movie.

The EWG rail yard performs a critical function, transferring goods by crane between two railway systems in Asia and Europe, which use different gauges of track.

In the old days moving freight from one rail-line to the next was an inefficient, expensive and dangerous process. Railway cars and their contents had to be tracked manually, and the containers were moved by crane operators in cabs 100 feet off the ground. The new EWG terminal features technologies that automate shipment tracking — and moving containers is done remotely, over a state-of-the-art private 5G network.

Getting 5G to work properly at this scale, with so much at stake, was extremely challenging — not least because the company had to deal with the outbreak of both Covid and the war in Ukraine while it was building the site, according to János Tálosi, CEO, East-West Intermodal Logistics Plc., who spoke with Silverlinings onsite at the rail yard.

Private 5G latency learnings

To build its private 5G network, EWG looked at equipment from several vendors but ultimately chose equipment from Huawei, and is delighted with how it has performed, especially when it comes to latency requirements, according to Tálos.

Huawei’s private 5G network delivers latency of 20 milliseconds — compared to 1,000 milliseconds (or one second) from one of the competing vendors — Tálosi said, noting that their performance was the equivalent of comparing “a VW Polo to a Rolls Royce.”

In case you’re wondering (and I know I was), EWG stopped short of telling me the name of Huawei’s competitor, saying only that it was one of the top two or three 5G infrastructure suppliers in the world.

This is the sort of tidbit that people drop into a conversation when you’ve made the effort to travel across the world to see them in person, and it’s obviously well outside the parameters of the 5G PR and marketing spume that leading vendors are now feeding the generally lacklustre and sleepy remnants of the world’s B2B technology trade press. It is also exactly the kind of real-world data that companies looking to invest in private 5G for their industrial applications need to know about.

Politics and paranoia

This is where the story gets political, of course, because enterprises and service providers in the U.S., U.K., and Australia are precluded from using Huawei 5G equipment by their governments, and pressure is growing on European Union members to do the same thing — the argument being that the Chinese could use their telecom equipment as a platform for espionage.

Of course, everyone everywhere is still free to buy iPhones made by Chinese employees working for Chinese companies in Chinese factories in China, because, well, go ahead and insert your local government-issued rationale for why this makes any sort of sense [here].

In fact, when governments get involved in communications technology the losers are almost always the industry, and the end users. And that certainly seems to be the case.

Whatever the merits or otherwise of the security argument, banning Huawei hasn’t stopped it from becoming the largest telecom manufacturer in the world, and doing so is limiting Western companies from choosing the 5G technology that’s best for their business.

EWG had a choice and went with Huawei. Not giving other companies the same freedom to choose is going to hold them back.

Watch the video here to learn more about EWG and how it’s using private 5G to transform its business.