Our blog

Do MNOs really understand what URLLC means for industry?

As many will be aware, URLLC or Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communications, is one of the key new areas addressed by 5G technology. It defines a set of operational and performance parameters for a completely new class of mobile services and applications. While in the near-term, eMBB is expected to grab the headlines (as MNOs compete to be the first to launch 5G in their markets), in the long-run, many expect that URLLC is the real opportunity for the mobile industry.

That’s because URLLC is likely to be of great interest to industrial players that have very specific (and challenging) performance requirements, and MNOs hope to be able to build extensive B2B relationships to deliver the required service capabilities. As such, URLLC represents a significant potential commercial opportunity to build new B2B partnerships. Given that few expect mobile consumers to pay significant more for 5G performance, it may be that new URLLC-based services represent MNOs best chance for securing ROI from their 5G investments.

So, it was some surprise to hear one leading MNO state at the recent Luxembourg 5G Conference, which took place at the end of November last year, that “there are no use cases for URLLC that cannot be met with 4G LTE networks”. That’s an interesting perspective. It’s also one that is completely at odds with what we heard at the Fokus Fuseco 5G Forum, which took place in Berlin a couple of weeks before.

The Fokus event saw speakers drawn from a wide range of industries clearly and articulately state what they wanted from URLLC – capabilities that they cannot obtain today, and which can unlock new performance and operational benefits. Speaker after speaker pointed to lists of performance requirements, specific to their industry – spanning agriculture, broadcast television, car manufacturing and many more – and for which wireless URLLC offered significant performance and optimisation benefits.

To give one example, we heard how replacing a cable in a robotic arm that performs the same function, time after time, with a wireless control capability could make significant savings through the avoidance of down-time to replace a component that is subject to wear and tear. There were many, many more. Some relate to operational performance improvements, while others relate to new applications. Another example is new automated, remote control of driverless tractors to reduce the number of annual road deaths caused when agricultural vehicles join public highways (there are, apparently, 400 deaths in such traffic accidents each year in Europe alone). We could go on (and probably will, in another post) but something’s wrong here.

What’s wrong is that MNOs – or this MNO at least – do not understand the industrial requirements that URLLC can service. To obtain this understanding, they need to effectively engage with industry so that they can clearly and precisely catalogue the use cases that are being demanded. Interestingly – and worryingly for the MNO industry – several of the speakers at the Fokus event explicitly stated that they do not believe MNOs are capable of delivering the capabilities they need. Instead, they want to build their own 5G networks, with localised campus deployments – or even across limited (not country-wide) WANs. They do not appear to have confidence in MNOs.

That’s profoundly disturbing. It shows that, after all the hype and bluster and general noise created about the fabulous promise of 5G, particularly for different vertical users, the MNO industry is miles away from actually understanding what its most attractive customer base really wants. To underline the point, several speakers praised the German regulator for reserving spectrum specifically for industrial purposes, a striking contrast to the brouhaha raised by the GSMA when criticising the same action (see here for more on this).

It seems as if the mobile industry – which has long clamoured for 5G and has been vocal in positioning it as its big chance to restore growth – is completely misaligned with the needs of the very customers they need to attract to make it a success. Yes, it’s possible that eMBB might pay the bills, but it seems very unlikely. MNOs need to wake up, fast, so that they can really understand the needs of their key future partners.

It’s not difficult – it’s called marketing. Understanding, anticipating and meeting the needs of your customers. Perhaps MNOs should spend some time on this, rather than shouting about meaningless consumer 5G trials?