“Our private 5G network is just beautiful”
Interoperability challenges the fast-evolving 5G industry. A lab talk with Arnau Mata-Llenas: building umlaut’s ORAN campus network.
When and why did you decide to build your own 5G laboratory in Aachen?
Everything started a year ago when we saw that operators were moving towards reduced vendor dependency, to cloud networks, to automation and to 5G itself. We saw that the industry is looking for connectivity, and for connectivity solutions which allow them to implement their use cases alongside digitalisation.
Use cases like…
Smart factory, connected cars or telemedicine. It was easy to realise that the traditional approach until now of ‘you want a network you buy SIM cards’ is not going to be sustainable for the long term. Because the industry wants ownership of their own data and they need to tailor the network to satisfy the actual needs of their use cases. If we put this together with the fact that there are new vendors appearing in the ecosystem – with Open RAN and network virtualisation – the whole ecosystem changes and here we saw the clear opportunity that private networks are going to be needed everywhere.
With governmental support in Germany or the US – is it just fruit picking then?
Building a private network is not easy. And not cheap. There are a lot of ideas in the industry now. And here is exactly where the campus network comes into play. It's a place where the network is fully available based on the technology that the industry will end up using. And on top of this we have the whole engineering capabilities from telecommunications, but also from industry like automotive, logistics, aerospace, telemedicine and rail. So it's the perfect place for client and industry use cases. We help to prototype them until a proof of concept. With very little investment, customers have a chance to understand how this will work before they actually build their own network.
What would be an example connectivity need for a smart factory?
When we look at automating a factory, digital twins or real time process control, there is always three factors around connectivity: You need reliability, you need low latency, you need capacity. And this is exactly the foundation of 5G – and the foundation of most use cases.
Can you describe such a scenario?
If you're automating a factory, there are most likely many different machines that need to talk to each other simultaneously. At the same time, you have 24/7 video feeds for remote controlling. Ideally, you want to take profit of all this data to become a smart factory. Think about predictive maintenance as one of the enabled use cases. Based on movement from your robot, you know when a piece will break, so you can just repair it before it happens. That’s how you reduce the downtime of the factory.
Each one of these aspects in this journey requires high availability, low end-to-end latency, massive number of devices, high traffic volumes – or a combination. 5G enables them all but does not deliver out of the box.
Is the new umlaut 5G campus big enough for a robot plant?
We make it suitable for everything which is required. At the campus we have both outdoor and indoor coverage. We have different buildings plus the roads in between – based on a couple of principles: Open RAN, best of breed vendors with the latest technology, and cloud-based infrastructure. That goes along with massive MIMO antennas for the outdoors and small cells for the indoor rooms and floors. The whole network is running in one rack with servers, with hardware and software from our partners Druid Software, Airspan and Fibrolan. If you need a big space, we have that available. If you need the room for your own dedicated and secure space that no one else can join or enter, not a problem.
When does one need its own campus and how can umlaut help building it?
We're talking about purpose-built networks. This is not like say, a plug and play solution. It's not like you get one single vendor or different vendors and you put all pieces together and it works. You need to do planning because you must ensure that there is a homogeneous coverage across the whole campus, and no interference before you start deploying with specific performance needs across different locations. You need to understand the use cases and design the network for them, with flexibility to evolve. Afterwards you need to install everything and ensure that it's a performing in the way it was designed. That's exactly the expertise we have at umlaut. The whole design, build, operate and transfer of the network is one of our core expertise’s – end to end. We do it for operators, for vendors, and throughout vertical industries. Even for ourselves. What’s that called? Eat our own dogfood!
No strings attached?
Well, there is the maturity of the technology. Open RAN is attractive because of the openness, innovation and cost, which leads to independent and therefore flexible new vendors. Innovation speed for new releases and software is high, you can have them every couple of weeks. The fact that everything will work together, and be secure, is not there by design. It's multiple parties, different configurations, and a continuously evolving network. Interoperability is a big challenge. We see this in private networks, but also for operators. We come from an engineering, testing and validation background. It is a natural thing for us to jump into as a system integrator. We provide assessments to challenge newcomers so that we make sure that this maturity is not impacting industry and telco solutions.
Since your campus is mainly software-based – will you ship it globally?
At the end of the day, the network itself is just beautiful. And the beauty of it is, as soon as you have the infrastructure, you can basically fold antennas, cables and standard servers into a container and ship it globally. But the capability to make it fly – well you at least will need umlaut Human Resources.