US industry lags China in 5G adoption and implementation. Image: Ericsson

NEW YORK – While Chinese factories have installed 6,000 private 5G broadband networks to support AI applications in manufacturing, only a handful of large US manufacturers have done or are planning to do so.

General Motors, which sold more cars in China than in the US last year, was an early adopter, and machinery giant John Deere expects to have a 5G network operating sometime late in 2023. But there is no indication of widespread adoption as in China.

A key obstacle to 5G adoption in the United States is a cumbersome regulatory framework that makes it hard for private networks to gain access to wireless spectrum. “Spectrum supply is also a serious problem and part of why we haven’t seen more commitment to onshore, non-consumer 5G,” a US official told Asia Times on background.

C-Band, a mid-spectrum range of cellular broadband frequencies, would support private 5G networks well, but its deployment has been blocked by interagency wrangling. The Federal Aviation Administration claimed that C-Band might interfere with the avionics of commercial aircraft, a position disputed by wireless providers, who point out that C-Band is widely used in other countries and never has been associated with an airplane accident.

The US Defense Department meanwhile objected to commercializing another part of the wireless spectrum in the 3.1 to 3.45 Gigahertz range, claiming that it would cost $120 billion to relocate military equipment using those bands.

Because of these obstacles, one US official said, “It might well be more than five years before any spectrum designated for commercialization is brought to market, and probably another year before there’s significant service available.”

US industry has been slow to leverage the advantages of 5G. Image: Ericsson

There are a few published examples of private broadband networks installed at US manufacturing facilities, but they appear well behind China’s offerings. General Motors was the first to announce a private 5G network in 2022, for its Factory Zero plant in Hamtramck, Michigan.

But “GM, however, isn’t close to going completely wireless, a GM spokesman said in April. GM has been developing the system in partnership with Verizon for three years. The spokesman added that “the technology remains relatively new after decades of wired networks across the company’s operations.”

Ford announced its first industrial 5G network in partnership with AT&T in October 2021. And Mercedes’ Sindelfingen plant uses 5G/AI technology to detect manufacturing failures of bladed disks for jet engine turbines.

Huawei, by contrast, publicized its first fully-automated plant in August 2022.

Dow Chemical worked with Nokia and Microsoft to install a private 4G LTE network – a generation behind 5G – at its Freeport site, providing improved communications among 40 plants. LTE’s slow response time and limited data capacity can’t support Big Data/AI applications, which require the low latency and high capacity of 5G.

MdX, a manufacturing incubator supported by the Department of Defense, built an experimental 5G network at its test facility in Chicago in 2022 with support from the wireless infrastructure company Betacom.

“The goal is to test both approaches to 5G, and to allow manufacturing companies to come in and experiment with them, which is important because different 5G frequencies can perform differently on factory floors depending on local physical factors,” Networkworld reported last year.

A recent Nokia survey of 5G adopters showed modest results from the technology. Half of the companies surveyed showed a cost reduction of 6% or more from their 5G investment.

Manufacturing companies, according to an MdX spokesman, are still using outdated computer hardware that doesn’t support 5G. Cisco and Hewlett Packard have begun selling private 5G equipment, along with established telecom infrastructure providers Nokia and Ericsson.

But the hardware companies are still working the bugs out of their products, according to one industry expert. “They sent in 40 engineers who trip over each other and take forever to get anything done,” the expert said.

Two American football stadiums are installing private 5G networks, however.

Low latency and high capacity allow 5G networks to enhance factory automation. High-speed cameras upload thousands of pictures per minute to the Cloud, where AI algorithms identify defective parts, malfunctioning equipment or other manufacturing snags.

Huawei’s first fully automated factory began operations in August 2022 for the appliance manufacturer Midea. The suite of AI applications made possible by 5G doubled the factory’s shipping rate, Huawei claims.

5G-enabled lifts load containers from cargo ships with remotely controlled quay cranes. Photo: Huawei

The 6,000 networks that Huawei says already are installed haven’t reached that level of productivity by any means. Chinese manufacturers are adopting the technology because the government strongly encourages it, a Huawei representative said. But the adoption of this technology has already produced some impressive results.

In April, the top Chinese auto manufacturer BYD unveiled a compact electric vehicle with an $11,300 sticker price, well within the range of consumers in China and large parts of the Global South.

5G networks also multiply the productivity of ports and mines. Mining operations routinely damage communication cables, a problem solved by broadband.

5G broadband can link thousands of cameras in a coal mine, sending thousands of images per second to the Cloud, where AI algorithms identify potential problems before they cause damage, according to Huawei Technologies, the world’s largest provider of 5G hardware and applications. Operators on the surface control giant tunneling machines and conveyor belts with a minimum of personnel underground.

At China’s Tianjin Port, a 5G/AI system has reduced the unloading time for a large container ship to 45 minutes from the previous eight hours. Automated cranes read bar codes on containers and place them rapidly onto autonomous trucks that bring them to automated warehouses.

Follow David P. Goldman on Twitter at @davidpgoldman