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Industry 4.0▫«With 5G, the Role of Telco Operators Evolves from Connectivity Providers to Service Providers», Stefano Pileri, CEO of Italtel

(L’italiano qui) Blockchain, robots, machine learning, artificial intelligence, computer vision, Internet of Things, automation and 5G networks: these are some of the fields where the new group in the Italian IT scene, Exprivia | Italtel, is all in to support the digitalization of businesses and Industry 4.0.

Mister Pileri, in addition to speed and capacity, 5G networks also allow for performance and capacity to be tailored to the single industrial customer in local and dedicated networks. Are you getting requests from businesses in Italy for input for their 5G planning?

Yes, businesses are asking us to help them plan for 5G to improve their processes. With 5G, the role of telco operatorsgradual as in the USA evolves from connectivity providers to service providers. Let me give you three examples.

The first is in the health care and insurance industries. 5G allows for you to gather an amount of data never viable before: 1 million smart sensors per square kilometer. With such a massive monitoring becoming available, 5G will be conducive to a telemedicine model that has yet to be built. Take, for instance, vital parameters being recorded in real-time and in a constant manner—with safe and certified methods, of course—that can be now included in the medical files of patients, for them to be monitored remotely to detect emergencies or critical developments. This opens up new scenarios for telemedicine, and a great opportunity for insurance companies, especially life insurers, to develop new business models.

The second example is industrial production, where 5G networks become indispensable. Why? Because with robots moving around in the factory floors alongside people, immediate reactions to any stimulus are essential. 5G networks enable these kinds of applications with a time of response, a latency, that can be lower by 10 times. In factory floors these features will be important also for logistics. Many robots and production lines that generate data will be able to self-manage operations fully unmanned. Such will be the case of autonomous machines moving semi-finished products both inside and outside the companies’ campuses; or of drones transporting materials or finished goods to their destination.

A third important example are the very applications. With the current model, the bulk of the computing capacity is in the cloud. Moreover, these clouds are in the hands of just a few companies—Amazon, Google, etc. 5G networks will enable, instead, a new distributed computing model. Thanks to edge computing, companies will be able to move many applications onto the network. Parts will operate still centralized, but much will be performed locally.

Think smart grids for alternative energies. If computing is done near to where data is collected, the reaction can be much faster, lowering latency time almost to zero, and making the whole system extremely responsive. In my opinion, this is important because it increases the number of players in the cloud industry, and ups the computing capacity available to companies, both centralized and local.

Which industries in Italy will naturally move the fastest towards these kinds of solutions?

First and foremost, industrial operations, where it is often essential to perform computing close to the source of the data. Take the case of a flow of robots moving semi-finished products on the factory floor that I mentioned earlier, or a connected car that will need to brake in order not to run over a person. In all these cases, an immediate reaction is essential. With 5G we will have a delay of 1 millisecond, compared to the 20-30 milliseconds we have today. It doesn’t seem much, bu who t it is a decisive difference, both in terms of efficiency and of safety, as we learn every day from the news.

Infrastructures today cannot support the data flow such technologically advanced machines are producing, hence the potential of 5G to become the enabling technology for the “factory of the future”.

Staying on the subject of industrial networks, in the case of national critical areas, what kind of dialogue are you having with authorities, like ports and airports or transport authorities, with which you will be dealing when you design the 5G networks?

This is an extremely interesting and very broad subject, but I will simplify it. First of all, there is an important obstacle that must be overcome: the limit for electromagnetic emissions which is set in Italy at 6V/m, whilst the European cap is over 40. Italian operators just invested 6.5 billion euros [to buy the 5G frequencies, EN] and they need a fast 5G network deployment to recoup the investment. Second, in Italy, in the telecommunications sector, we need to be able to speed up permitting.

Nowadays we need to get permits from each and every of several bodies: the government of the municipality, that of the region, the supervisory authorities for culture and heritage, for the environment… For the deployment of a 5G network you need the assessment of an array of authorities. Exprivia-Italtel is the designer company for the deployment of the fiber optic network for the Italian telco Open Fiber, and we are experiencing first-hand how complex the permit process is in Italy. It just takes too long. This must absolutely evolve. [Mister Pileri smiles]: We could try and record the networks’ permissions requests on a blockchain, like in our blockchain application for phone number portability[Coming in a next post].

5G offers great flexibility as to be the combination of solutions, for example, for networks in densely populated areas or in remote areas. How are you collaborating with operators in infrastructure planning?

With operators we are tackling three aspects. One is network planning, as you were mentioning or in the case of Open Fiber. Open Fiber, for example, might be oriented to use fixed wireless access in remote areas. We are working on other applications with other operators. Second, we are participating in the 5G trials of the Ministry of Economic Development. Thirdly, we would like to start implementing the core networks, that is, distributed computing, and the network flexibility you were mentioning. Network slicing gives us the possibility to assign a network to a single customer or a single application.

According to the 5G Observatory of the European Commission, Italy is the country with the most cities, 6, potentially ready for 5G. How do you see 5G coming on in Italy? Like in the UK, with a launch in areas with the highest peaks in the need for data alongside rural areas that are not covered by fiber optics?

This strategy owns to a diversification by type of frequency. In areas where the demand is very high, you densify antennas using the highest frequencies, because these allow for greater capacity: 24 to 26-28 GHz; in remote areas, on the other hand, to extend the coverage range you would need medium-low frequencies. Therefore, given the capacity and speed of 5G networks, in some rural areas it makes sense to substitute the fixed line network with fixed wireless access, which would provide those areas with high-performance services and speeds. In metropolitan areas, where there are many terminals, networks can use small cells, but in large numbers, in order to provide everyone with large data capacity.

How do you see the upgrade of the infrastructure in Italy from 4G to 5G happening? As gradual as in the USA?

Yes, because 4G technology with the so-called massive mimo [the technology that provides uniformly good services to a very high number of terminals, EN] and carrier aggregation [the technology that allows to combine two or even three separate frequency bands on a smartphone to achieve greater performance, EN] allow already for a good performance and latency. Albeit not being those of 5G, they come very close—300-350 Mb/s on 4G devices compared to 1000 Mb/s on 5G devices. So, yes, we see this strategy evolving in Italy as well.

What is clear is that the deployment of 5G will begin by upgrading the existing network—around 70,000 antennas—and then move on to densify the infrastructure selectively. It is estimated that the number of existing antennas will multiply by six to ten times. We are talking here, however, much smaller and low-power antennas that will not, for this reason, add any issues to those of the existing infrastructure. Nonetheless, I hope that the 6 V/m limit will be changed, because we already face difficulties today, forget it when we will need to have ten times as many antennas, even if very small ones.

Your biggest challenge…?

Make sure that networks, IT and applications will provide the digital transformation with the leverage to transform businesses in many different industries. Exprivia | Italtel combines a strong network expertise with the ability to analyze data. We are aiming at developing the digital features of our solutions that can best be implemented in the business models of our clients: ever more applications that draw on data, use AI, and are based on robots and sensors connected to each other through ultra-fast networks. The quest for innovative business models hinges on the ability of businesses to become digital. We believe that we have an important role to play in this process.