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How a private mobile network helps critical industries optimize their IoT solutions

By Victor Arrieta, Director, Vertical Solutions Portfolio Product Management and Business Development 

Remotes sites like this mine will benefit greatly from IoT technologies powered and Secured by a Private Mobile Network (Also known as a wireless private network or a private cellular network).

In my time supporting the digital transformation journeys of different companies, I’ve seen firsthand the many benefits that the Internet of Things (IoT) can bring to critical industries. A great example is mining, where automated trucks have helped streamline operations and improve workforce efficiency. The usefulness of those trucks, however, depends entirely on the performance and reliability of wireless connectivity.  

When an automated vehicle loses connectivity to its remote control system, it could stop running and potentially block critical pathways into and out of the mine. That can bring the entire operation to a standstill – not to mention putting lives at risk if evacuation routes become impassable. Preventing this kind of costly disruption in mines as well as other remote industrial settings like offshore oil rigs calls for reliable, dedicated wireless connectivity to enable automated vehicles and other IoT solutions – the kind of connectivity available only with a private mobile network

The need for reliable uptime

Critical industries like mining and oil and gas rely on specialized technology and equipment to drive their operations, from electric mining shovels to massive drilling machines. Increasingly, the vendors of these technologies are delivering their equipment with sensors and other IoT functions already embedded. These solutions have the potential to revolutionize operations by making them safer and more productive, but they have stringent uptime requirements that conventional networks cannot meet. 

Operations Directors in these industries have told me that every minute that their operational equipment isn’t up and running can cost them substantial amounts of money. Downtime is not an option, so a network that reliably and consistently interconnects all IoT solutions is vital. Public cellular connectivity is generally not a feasible option, as coverage in the remote areas where these industries operate doesn’t offer the upload capacity and performance to handle data-hungry industrial applications.  

Geographically, public connectivity is often not available to many critical industries:  it can’t reach oil rigs in the middle of the North Atlantic or open-pit mines in remote locations, or penetrate deep into underground mines. While private Wi-Fi is an option, it’s better suited for more stationary connectivity as it has trouble keeping up with the demands of highly mobile IoT solutions. 

A private mobile network is an effective way to ensure that IoT solutions get the reliable, dedicated connectivity that they need for delivering their promised benefits. The edge of the network is closer to where IoT solutions operate. This results in faster processing speeds and lower latency. It delivers dedicated connectivity, eliminating the risk of high volumes of external traffic affecting performance. It’s a fully closed environment, so it offers improved security, while also giving the business control over when to run maintenance on the network in coordination with the rest of their operations. A private mobile network is also designed for smooth handoffs between nodes, both above and below ground, so there’s no signal loss as devices and equipment move around.

Connected sites deliver better operations

By bringing together IoT and a private mobile network, I see the potential for a wide range of use cases for critical industries. These include: 

  • Asset tracking: Embedded locators help ensure that the right equipment is always in the right place at the right time, providing real-time information on how and where assets are being used. This improves asset utilization and reduces operational costs. 
  • Safety and compliance: Wearable locators and sensors, such as those embedded in helmets, can help keep workers safe by monitoring vital signs and ensuring that everyone is accounted for, at all times. They can also keep companies in compliance with regulations that cap working time or exposure to hazardous conditions. 
  • Exploration: Remote-controlled drones, in combination with a video analytics platform, can identify likely spots for mining or drilling with less overhead and less risk to workers, but they require high-bandwidth connections with extremely low latency.
  • Predictive maintenance: Sensors on equipment can help prevent sudden breakdowns – and the costly downtime that follows – by predicting when maintenance or repairs will be required, well before the point of failure. 

An industrial worker uses IoT technology powered by a private mobile network.I’m also seeing other sectors, such as manufacturing, starting to look at the benefits of private mobile networks to advance their own Industry 4.0 transformations and overcome their connectivity issues. For example, most factory floor robots today are “tethered”, meaning they’re connected with cables and wires. Those cables severely limit the functionality and, in particular, the mobility of the robots. Private mobile networks paired with edge computing can deliver the low latency connection that these robots need for full freedom of movement, enabling far greater flexibility and agility – and dramatically increasing their applicability in new use cases. The applications controlling the robot operation can be deployed at the edge of the network, on premises, reducing the computing capacity required at the robot itself, which results in smaller units with lower costs.  

In these ways, a private mobile network helps optimize industrial operations, while driving the return on investment of IoT solutions. 

Challenges in making the shift to private mobile networks

Although the benefits of a private mobile network are substantial, they can be difficult to quantify in order to support a business case, especially if a business isn’t measuring its current state. I recommend that companies start by establishing a baseline before they deploy the network, tracking key performance indicators (KPIs) such as network uptime and downtime, cost per hour of downtime, worker incidents and injuries, and so on. These metrics will likely show noticeable improvements after the deployment of a private mobile network. 

The differences between the needs of operational technology (OT) and those of information technology (IT) can also present challenges. OT includes the equipment and infrastructure that powers operations, such as specialized machinery. Managing OT often requires in-the-moment decisions on how and where to deploy machinery because it has a direct impact on profitability. This is different from traditional IT infrastructure requirements supporting enterprise applications focused more on security and compliance. Decision-makers accustomed to accounting for IT needs may have trouble recognizing the specific needs of OT, driven by operational requirements. 

Finally, the shift to new ways of working enabled by IoT and other Industry 4.0 technologies can present its own challenges. Workers may be accustomed to doing things certain ways and need upskilling to use the new technologies. Those technologies will also require proper integration with the legacy systems still in use to ensure interoperability. It all comes with costs and complexities that need effective management. 

The right partner is key

Setting up a private mobile network – often just one component of a broader digital transformation effort – can be a very complex project. It requires designing, deploying, and operating telecommunications equipment of the same nature as those used in public networks. To ensure the service level and reliability required, enterprises need a dedicated team to continuously monitor the network performance and intervene to resolve any incidents that arise. Enterprises also need a partner who owns the licensed spectrum required to operate the private mobile network. Organizations in critical industries are not network operators – and they don’t want to become one – but the reality is that network expertise is needed to get up and running, operate, and maintain the network. 

Working with a trusted partner gives companies access to that expertise, freeing up resources for core operations, productivity, and safety. Bell has the technology to build the right network for every industry, while our Professional Services team has the expertise to help companies design, plan, and deploy those networks so they can get the most from their IoT solutions. 

About the author

Victor Arrieta has almost 30 years of experience leading technology innovation programs and delivering best-in-class solutions to help organizations achieve their digital transformations. Since 2019, Victor has been working in product development, including virtual network services and IoT solutions. He currently leads the Business IoT Product Management team, managing the IoT portfolio and overseeing the development of new vertical end-to-end solutions.