Source: China State Council Information Office
In the control room of a steel company in Xiangtan, Hunan province, four technicians are operating joysticks to remotely control bridge cranes in a neighboring high-temperature plant.
Via a big screen which showcases real-time video of the factory, the employees monitor the processes and all the equipment is moving in an orderly fashion.
“Previously, the control center had to be placed within a steel plant to allow it to control the process without a time delay. We had to work in an environment featuring high temperatures, noise and dust. But all of this has changed due to the 5G network,” said Liu Jiwen, who is in charge of Hunan Valin Xiangtan Iron and Steel’s 5-meter-wide thick plate production facility.
According to Liu, 5G’s low latency and big bandwidth mean the control center can now be located in a cozy room outside of the mill and one employee can remotely operate multiple bridge cranes simultaneously, significantly boosting efficiency.
That marks a stark contrast to the image of workers toiling away in steel mills with sweat pouring down their faces.
The typical labor-intensive iron and steel industry is undergoing new transformations thanks to the commercialization of 5G and other cutting-edge technologies.
The steel plant also offers a glimpse of how Chinese tech companies are scrambling to partner with a wide range of traditional sectors to promote the industrial use of 5G and unleash the full potential of the most advanced communications technology so far.
Since the start of last year, Valin Xiangtan Iron and Steel has been partnering with China Mobile, the nation’s largest telecom operator, and Huawei Technologies, a major telecom equipment maker, to explore 5G’s role in empowering employees to work in a green and smart environment, away from occupational and health hazards.
“We have now achieved a string of application scenarios, such as centralized remote control of steel scrap cranes, unmanned cranes in certain areas, remote control of robotic arms and automatic surveillance of hazardous areas in the plant, said Liu Yangbo, a 5G technical expert at China Mobile’s Hunan branch.
Experts said 5G can enable automated, unmanned operations in manufacturing plants in a way that traditional fiber networks and Wi-Fi technologies cannot. Traditional fiber networks, after all, are far more difficult and expensive to deploy, while Wi-Fi is prone to interference and lacks both stability and capacity.
As Chinese telecom operators make steady progress in rolling out the 5G network across the nation, more traditional industries have embraced the technology to upgrade their operations, just like the Xiangtan steel plant.
From conducting arguably the world’s first 5G-powered remote surgery on a human brain, to enabling a 5G-connected automatic electric locomotive in a 500-meter-deep mine, to piloting the operation of self-driving buses and automobiles in many cities, Chinese companies are pioneering a string of new industrial uses of the superfast wireless technology, experts and company executives said.
Wen Ku, spokesman for the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the nation’s top industry regulator, said, “4G has already changed our lives, and 5G will change our societies.”
According to Wen, 5G delivers larger bandwidth, lower time lag, better reliability, broader connectivity and ubiquitous networks, which will inject new vitality into many traditional sectors.
“Only 20 percent of 5G’s applications will be consumer-oriented ones, and 80 percent of its commercial potential lies in its use in traditional sectors. As a result, the combination of 5G and other sectors will be of great importance to the nation’s industrial upgrade,” he said.
The latest data from MIIT show that China had built over 500,000 5G base stations by the middle of August. Also, more than 100 million devices have been connected to the 5G network as part of the nation’s broader push to accelerate 5G deployment.
At a forum on Sept 18, Han Xia, director of the telecom department at MIIT, said China is expected to have more than 600,000 5G base stations by the end of the year, covering all cities at prefecture level and above.
According to Han, the nation will step up its push to expand 5G network coverage, build a dynamic industrial ecosystem and strengthen international cooperation to quicken the commercialization of the superfast wireless technology.
China Mobile is scrambling to answer the call. The State-owned company has unveiled its plans to help a variety of industries build private 5G networks, which is a key way to implement innovative industrial applications.
Private 5G networks enable companies to control resources and deploy their own networks. They can also safely store important sensitive data on their own networks and don’t have to send the information to telecom operators, said Zhao Dachun, deputy general manager of China Mobile.
China Telecom and China Unicom, two smaller rivals, have also announced their latest developments. They have jointly built and operated more than 300,000 5G base stations so far, after announcing a year ago that they would join hands to reduce construction costs for fifth-generation wireless technology.
Wang Xiaochu, chairman of China Unicom, said the 5G joint construction and sharing initiative has helped to save 60 billion yuan ($8.8 billion) in construction investment, which enabled the companies to achieve the goal of enlarging 5G network coverage in the shortest time and with the lowest investment level.
According to data compiled by MIIT, as of July, about 99 telecom operators in more than 46 countries and regions had started offering 5G services, and Chinese telecom companies are set to be among the most aggressive in terms of investment into 5G network rollout.
The China Academy of Information and Communications Technology, a government think tank, has forecast that the country is likely to spend 1.2 trillion yuan on 5G network construction by 2025, driving more than 3.5 trillion yuan of investment in the upstream and downstream industry chains and related sectors by then.
The forecast came as China consolidated its position as a global leader in 5G, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. The nation is expected to account for 70 percent of global 5G connections this year, according to the Global System for Mobile Communications Association, or GSMA, the international association of mobile operators.
The association also predicted that 5G will account for almost half of China’s mobile connections by 2025, representing an adoption rate on par with other leading 5G markets such as Japan, South Korea and the United States.
Si Han, head of GSMA China, said, “Unlocking the benefits of 5G networks, flexible policies, including for spectrum and infrastructure, are strategically important to support China’s ongoing transformation into a fully fledged digital economy.”
According to Si, identifying industrial scenarios, establishing standards, and joint innovations are key factors for 5G’s success with different sectors, but patience and persistence are as important in the efforts to better understand each industry’s evolving needs and requirements.
Chen Hong, chairman of Hina Group, a Chinese investment company that has funded a string of 5G-related startups, said that as digital technologies become increasingly intertwined with traditional sectors, 5G will play a new role in spurring China’s burgeoning digital economy to a new development stage.
“4G has triggered a boom in China’s consumer internet applications. But the nation has no star companies that excel in using digital technologies to serve businesses. That is in sharp contrast to the US, where consumer internet companies and enterprise internet companies are thriving in tandem,” Chen said.
“The landscape in China will be reshaped by 5G, which will accelerate the use of digital technologies in more sectors.