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

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SEONGNAM, SOUTH KOREA—At the new headquarters of South Korea’s largest internet company, a fleet of self-driving robots whirl around delivering coffee, lunchboxes 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 operational at

Naver Corp.’s


035420 4.42%

high-rise office building. The tower is specifically designed with bump-free flooring and handle-free doors that open via sensors to help the robots move around more easily.

Powering the robots is a critical technology: a private 5G network that gives them a stable connection to the cloud, or virtual server, where their computing takes place, and where each unit’s learned intelligence is stored and shared. Having the hardware for this in the cloud keeps the robots small and less expensive to build, key requirements for broader adoption.

The private 5G network, jointly deployed by Naver and

Samsung Electronics Co.

’s network business unit, enables ultrafast connections, reducing lags in data, across the building’s 28 floors and eight basement levels.

And it marks 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 bed. It marks the first large-scale system of self-driving robots operating in a fully 5G-enabled building,” says

Kang Sang-chul,

an executive heading the robotics technology project at Naver Labs, the firm’s research-and-development arm.

An employee conducts quality-control tests on the robots at Naver.

Public vs. private

Unlike public 5G networks operated by telecom providers, private 5G is designed for exclusive use by a company or an organization. Depending on the regulatory environment, firms elsewhere could work directly with equipment vendors like Samsung or

Ericsson

AB to deploy a private 5G network. They could also purchase a private 5G plan operated by a telecom company.

Naver, in partnership with Samsung’s network business, was the first in South Korea to obtain a license to directly deploy a private 5G network after local regulators began allowing the option last year.

Compared with public 5G, a private 5G network can offer more customized connectivity features alongside enhanced security and privacy.

In South Korea, telecom companies operate public and private networks on the same frequency band. The public 5G network serves a user base whose primary need is data downloads for tasks like streaming videos or surfing the web. Hence, telecom operators typically designate around 80% of their public-network capacity to “downlinks” and 20% for “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 any lag. Given such considerations, Samsung says it engineered the private 5G 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 separate frequency band from the one telecom providers utilize, as the government has designated a new band for such purposes.

“Private networks can support customized services for enterprises with greater flexibility in network configuration,” says

Woojune Kim,

executive vice president and head of global sales and marketing at Samsung Electronics’ network business.

A private 5G network also offers enhanced security. The ability for a company to own and operate its own telecommunications network including the core infrastructure—in turn keeping all the data on premise—as well as independent data-encryption features are reasons clients seek to adopt private 5G networks, Mr. Kim says.

Depending on their business needs, investment size and targeted services, enterprises seeking to set up a private 5G network system can decide between direct deployment and enrolling in a plan with a telecom provider, the Samsung executive adds. Adoption in either form would help expand the overall market for private 5G.

Naver’s Mr. Kang says his company likely incurred more upfront costs than it would have had it purchased a private 5G plan from a telecom company, but he adds that owning the network itself gives Naver more operational freedom. With growing data-usage needs, the direct-deployment option may also be more cost-efficient in the long term than relying on a plan from a telecom company, he says.

A food-delivery robot travels through Naver’s office.

Early movers

The global market for private 5G is still fairly new, with companies and organizations in various countries in the process of validating the different ways that such ultrafast private networks could best be harnessed.

Among the earliest movers is Germany. In 2020,

Mercedes-Benz Group AG

deployed a private 5G network in partnership with Ericsson for automobile production at the auto maker’s “Factory 56” in the southern German city of Sindelfingen. In July, the operator of Frankfurt Airport announced a partnership with Japanese telecom company NTT Ltd. with aims to deploy Europe’s largest private 5G network. Other projects are being pursued in countries such as the U.S. and Japan.

The speed and extent to which private 5G networks are adopted by businesses and public agencies will depend on the gains such networks offer over existing Wi-Fi and private 4G, says

Pablo Tomasi,

principal analyst covering the private-networks business at Omdia, a tech-market research firm.

“A key challenge for the private 5G ecosystem will be to prove that by using this technology, you’re getting significantly better results that will justify an enterprise adopting a new tech at scale,” he says.

The private-networks market—covering 4G and 5G—is projected to grow to $6.5 billion by 2026, nearly four times 2021’s $1.7 billion, according to Omdia. By 2024, 5G is expected to overtake 4G as the dominant private-network technology. Manufacturing, energy and utilities, transport and logistics are likely to be the biggest areas driving private 5G adoption, Omdia projects.

Naver, for its part, foresees that one of the most significant use cases for private 5G will be cloud-based autonomous robots, and that the bots’ potential advancement will depend on continued progress in network technologies.

It is easier to collectively control and upgrade the robots when all the underlying data is managed through the cloud, says Mr. Kang of Naver.

A special robot uses its arms to clean delivery robots when they return from a delivery to ensure cleanliness and hygiene.

“One robot could become smarter with the data and operational experience it accumulates,” he says. “When such data is shared more broadly via the cloud, multiple robots can benefit. And that’s why we see a big future in 5G-connected, ‘brainless’ robots.”

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

In the near term, Mr. Kang says, the company is looking to deploy the same type of 5G-based robot system at its data center in Sejong with the goal of assisting workers in server maintenance and operations tasks.

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

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