Tuesday 17th September 2019

Will Orange and France squeeze the pips out of Germany’s next-gen transport?

Published on May 2nd, 2019

The imminent roll out of 5G has big implications for the future of transport, including how it is deployed as much as the technology itself. France and Germany are two of Europe’s biggest economies and next-door neighbours, but their approaches are looking a long way apart, writes Annie Turner.

In the national 5G spectrum auction, that began in March and is ongoing, the German telecoms regulator reserved two bands of spectrum for business and industrial use (industrial or IIoT). This is to encourage enterprises to build their own private networks, to their own specifications, without involving a communications network operator.

Given the nature of Germany’s economy, it is expected that manufacturing will be the most likely to take this opportunity (as part of the Industry 4.0 philosophy), there is nothing to stop transport companies exploiting the offer. Of course vehicle makers, which are key elements of connected and automated vehicle ecosystems, are big manufacturers too.

All kinds of transport organisations could opt for this do-it-yourself route, because, as industry watchers have noted, there is concern in Germany about how long it will take operators to upgrade their core and transport networks to support IIoT uses with 5G and severe criticism of operators’ lack of support for industrial customers.

Interested parties

Helmut Reisinger, the CEO of Orange Business Services, said at a press briefing at the Orange Summit at the end of April. “In Germany I hear there are interested parties, but will they really massively invest? We are known in the telco industry as capex-intensive and last year we spent €7.4 billion [$8.3 billion] on capex. Without that you cannot build credible network services.”

Indeed. On the other hand, they won’t be acting as carriers, providing national and international services. Still, it might be that most opt for an operator’s help: certainly Germany’s largest telco, Deutsche Telekom, only time will tell. In the meantime, there is some action on the transport front, such as BMW testing Deutsche Telekom’s IoT Service Button at its Leipzig production plant.

The operator describes the IoT Service Button as “a smart retrofit solution for logistics, manufacturing facilities, workshops, construction sites, and hospitals. The button can be used to order spare parts, arrange for full containers to be collected, or to report technical malfunctions.” Useful, but going to set the world alight, is it?

French fancies

Germany’s approach was also queried by Arnaud Vamparys, Orange’s senior vice president of radio networks, also at the press briefing during the Orange Summit, who explained the different approach Orange and France are taking.

He said, “There is a scarcity of spectrum and if you fragment this you lower the potential of new connectivity…If you [build out a network separately], you will isolate your site from the global network. What we have done is to have a network extension you can use locally for the companies… where we verify that what is in the standard can be used to create services with a private extension on the complete network.”

Interestingly, while in many other countries, operators are vying to be ‘first’ with 5G, Orange has resolutely turned its back on this approach. At the Summit, Stéphane Richard, chairman and chief executive officer, Orange Group, told 1,000 attendees drawn from its enterprise customers that Orange would only launch non-commercial networks in 2019. Further, they would be specific, developed in close collaboration with companies such as the national railway SNCF, Paris’ public transport operator, RATP, and Renault, the vehicle manufacturer.

Richard insisted that IoT and other services for industry, including transport, will be the first wave of 5G, followed by wider business-to-business uses, with consumers way down the line in the third wave.

Radical departure

This is radical stuff. Mobile network operators have built out previous generations of networks (2G, 3G and 4G) uniformly starting in big centres of and gradually extending coverage and capacity, and users – individual and corporate – have figured out how best to use them. True, there have been private radio networks for groups like emergency service or private LTE networks at ports, but this is not comparable with a major network operator stating it will start building out national infrastructure based on the needs of transport and industry.

Orange will work not only to provide the right kind of connectivity (in terms of speed, reliability, coverage and capacity) with the transport companies mentioned (and is looking to recruit others), but co-create (the mantra on all parties’ lips) the applications they will be used for.

Clearly the thinking in France is that to invest sufficiently in 5G infrastructure nationally, the operators need to make money from more than just from selling connections, which when all is said and done, are a commodity, however they are delivered. National interest and national infrastructure are obviously seen as inseparable.

Changing trains

Benoit Tiers, CIO/CTO, Major Digital Transformation of Information Systems, SNCF, told Summit attendees that in France alone, the company manages 15,000 train departures daily for 10 million passengers across 3,000 stations and 35,000 km of track. Passenger numbers are rising sharply, and Tiers said one advantage of combining technologies such as artificial intelligence and IoT to provide operational information in real-time, would enable SNCF to run 45% more trains on some tracks by running them closer together, and they would be safer too.

Annie Turner

He said taking operational decisions based on automation (rather than acting based on “empirical evidence”) would increase the number of TGVs (super-fast, long haul trains that run between major cities) – for example, running 20% more on the popular route between Lyon and Paris.

Tiers hopes that creating digital twins for trains in future would mean they could be stopped before a problem occurred through predictive maintenance, resulting in greater punctuality

As well as integrating travel better, including multi-mode, 5G connectivity could also help transform railways stations into places that are “convenient, useful and welcoming” he added, for entertainment and work, for instance, providing wireless printing facilities.

Getting off the starting blocks

After so much exciting stuff from M. Tier, SNCF’s immediate plans were a bit disappointing. It is working with Orange and Nokia to provide a high-speed, HD video download service for passengers at Rennes train station; Orange will launch the service in 2020 once the French regulator, Arcep, has given authorisation.

Passengers will be able to download videos to their mobile or tablet in a few seconds, so they can watch the film during their train journey. Additional services will also be tested locally, either for the general public or for businesses, as part of this experiment, and feedback will be sought to shape future developments.

Potentially more excitingly, RATP and Orange will experiment with autonomous and connected public transport vehicles in the Paris area during 2019.

Which regulatory policy and deployment models turn out to be the most successful for next-generation transport remains to be seen, but if I were a betting woman, right now I’d say that France could squeeze the pips out of Germany in the short to medium term at least.

The author of this blog is Annie Turner editor of IoT Transport

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