South Korean Internet Giant Offers Glimpse of a 5G Private Network Future

SEONGNAM, SOUTH KOREA — At the new headquarters of South Korea’s largest internet company, a fleet of self-driving robots are whirling around to deliver coffee, lunch boxes and mailed packages.

More than 100 of these autonomous robots, which look a bit like the droid R2-D2 from the “Star Wars” films and go by the name “Rookie”, are in use at Naver corps

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office tower. The tower is specially designed with a bumpless floor and handleless doors that open via sensors to allow the robots to move more easily.

Powering the robots is a crucial technology: a private 5G network that offers them a stable connection to the cloud or virtual server, where their data processing takes place and where the learned information of each unit is stored and shared. Having the hardware for this in the cloud keeps the robots small and cheaper to build, important prerequisites for wider adoption.

The private 5G network provided jointly by Naver and Samsung Electronics co

‘s Network Business Unit, enables ultra-fast connections and reduces data delays across the building’s 28 floors and eight basement floors.

And it’s the world’s first case of autonomous robots operating on a private 5G network, according to the two South Korean companies.

“It’s not just a couple of robots on a test bench. It is the first large-scale self-driving robot system to operate in a fully 5G-enabled building,” said Kang Sang-chul, an executive leading the robotics technology project at Naver Labs, the company’s research and development arm.

An employee carries out quality checks on the robots at Naver.

Public vs. private

Unlike public 5G networks operated by telecommunications providers, private 5G is designed for exclusive use by a business or organization. Depending on the regulatory environment, firms elsewhere could work directly with device vendors like Samsung or Ericsson AB to set up a private 5G network. You could also purchase a private 5G plan operated by a telecom company.

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Naver, in partnership with Samsung’s networks business, became the first company in South Korea to be granted a license to directly build a private 5G network after local regulators began allowing the option last year.

Compared to public 5G, a private 5G network can provide more customized connectivity features along with enhanced security and privacy.

In South Korea, telecommunications companies operate public and private networks on the same frequency band. The 5G public network serves a user base whose primary need is to download data for tasks such as streaming videos or browsing the web. Therefore, telecom operators typically allocate about 80% of their public network capacity to “downlinks” and 20% to “uplinks,” according to Samsung.

But for cases like Naver’s private network, faster uploads are more important, as the autonomous robots must continuously send massive amounts of data to the cloud – without delay. With such considerations, Samsung says it has engineered the 5G private network system so that uplinks account for up to 40% of the network’s total capacity. In South Korea, Naver’s private 5G network operates on a different frequency band than that used by telecom providers as the government has designated a new band for such purposes.

“Private networks can support tailored enterprise services with greater flexibility in network configuration,” said Woojune Kim, executive vice president and head of global sales and marketing for Samsung Electronics’ network business.

A private 5G network also offers increased security. A company’s ability to own and operate its own telecommunications network, including core infrastructure – which in turn keeps all data on-premises – as well as independent data encryption capabilities are reasons customers want to adopt private 5G networks, says Mr Kim.

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Businesses looking to set up a private 5G network system can choose between deploying directly or signing up for a plan with a telecom provider, depending on their business needs, investment size and targeted services, the Samsung executive adds. Launching in both forms would help expand the overall consumer 5G market.

Naver’s Mr. Kang says his company likely incurred more upfront costs than if it had bought a private 5G plan from a telco, but adds that owning the network itself gives Naver more operational freedom. With growing data usage demands, the direct deployment option may also be more cost-effective over the long term than relying on a telco plan, he says.

A delivery robot drives through Naver’s office.

Early riser

The global private 5G market is still fairly new, and companies and organizations in different countries are in the process of validating the different ways in which such ultra-fast private networks can best be used.

Germany is one of the earliest climbers. 2020 Mercedes Benz Group Inc

has implemented a private 5G network for car production in the car manufacturer’s “Factory 56” in the southern German town of Sindelfingen in partnership with Ericsson. In July, the operator of Frankfurt Airport announced a partnership with the Japanese telecommunications company NTT Ltd. known, which aims to build Europe’s largest private 5G network. Further projects are being pursued in countries such as the USA and Japan.

The speed and extent to which private 5G networks are adopted by businesses and governments will depend on the advantages such networks offer over existing Wi-Fi and private 4G, says Pablo Tomasi, senior analyst for the private networks business at Omdia, a technology company -market research company.

“A key challenge for the private 5G ecosystem will be to demonstrate that by deploying this technology you can achieve significantly better outcomes that justify a company adopting a new technology at scale,” he says.

According to Omdia, the private network market, which includes 4G and 5G, is projected to grow to $6.5 billion by 2026, nearly four times the $1.7 billion in 2021. By 2024, 5G is expected to become 4G as the dominant technology replace for private networks. Manufacturing, energy and utilities, transportation and logistics are likely to be the biggest areas driving private 5G deployment, Omdia projects.

For its part, Naver anticipates that one of the key use cases for private 5G will be cloud-based autonomous robots, and that the potential progress of the bots will depend on continued advances in network technologies.

It’s easier to control and update the robots together when all the underlying data is managed via the cloud, says Naver’s Mr. Kang.

A special robot uses its arms to clean delivery robots after returning from a delivery to ensure cleanliness and hygiene.

“A robot could get smarter with the data and operational experience it collects,” he says. “When such data is shared more widely across the cloud, multiple robots can benefit. And that’s why we see a big future in 5G-connected, “brainless” robots.”

The Naver exec says further leaps in 5G network technologies will be required to enable the self-driving robots to perform more complex tasks.

In the short term, says Kang, the company intends to deploy the same type of 5G-based robotic system at its Sejong data center to assist employees with server maintenance and operational tasks.

Ms. Sohn is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal in Seoul. She can be reached at [email protected].

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