Nokia has announced the launch of Europe’s largest private industrial 5G network at its Alcatel Submarine Networks (ASN) plant in Calais, France. The project was funded by the French government’s Recovery Plan and Future Investment Program.

ASN makes underwater cables for communication service providers, public cloud providers, and others who want to connect facilities across oceans. ASN Group’s chief information officer, Christophe Bejina, stated that Meta is currently ASN’s largest customer.

The need for quality control in the fabrication of underwater cables was emphasized by Tom Richter, head of Nokia’s manufacturing unit because fixing them after deployment is prohibitively expensive. He added the 5G network will eventually provide low-latency data transfer to facilitate real-time quality control during the manufacturing process.

Currently, the network is providing round-trip data transfers in less than 10 milliseconds, Richter said. Bejina added that the goal is to reach latencies below 5 milliseconds.

“In a normal public 5G network you’d see 10, 20 milliseconds, and that would be too long for us,” Bejina said. “Below 10 milliseconds is acceptable for the time being. You go to [private] 5G because there is a roadmap.”

ASN’s private 5G network is meant to transmit data only. For now, ASN uses the network to connect Zebra industrial-grade tablets, which workers use to see documents during production. “It is not necessary to have a 5G network for this,” said Richter. “When you start to deal with real-time data, it is mission critical, and for this, you would need a 5G network.”

Another reason ASN desired a 5G network, according to Bejina, is the security afforded by SIM cards with encrypted data. “Nothing but a 5G network will provide you with this security,” he claimed.

The 55,000-square-meter private 5G network includes 11 buildings, a deck, and an underground tunnel through which the cable is carried from the factory and storage tanks to vessels. There are 55 Nokia remote radio heads deployed indoors and two installed outdoors. “Anyone can be connected anywhere, at any area, or on any floor of the factory,” added Bejina.

The Nokia network core is deployed inside a tiny dedicated data centre near the facility. Bejina stated that ASN had a sovereign cloud data centre in France, but wanted the network core closer to the Calais factory to reduce latencies.

The dedicated data centre also has edge computing equipment that interfaces with manufacturing software used by ASN. Richter said ASN employs a suite of software offered by PTC, including ThingWorx and other tools which enable training and maintenance. He stated that ASN has already implemented the usage of digital glasses for equipment maintenance.

Richter stated that the private 5G network also communicates with SAP’s corporate resource planning (ERP) software, to which it links “via a traditional IT infrastructure.”

The 3.5 GHz spectrum for the private network was donated by French operator Iliad, and Iliad subsidiary Free Pro developed the network infrastructure and continues to provide network services. All SIM cards for the Zebra tablets are provided by Iliad. Richter stated that the network can accept eSIM devices, but all devices use physical SIMs for now.

Iliad also operates a private 5G network for ASN in the UK, using spectrum purchased from British regulator Ofcom. Like the Calais network, ASN’s private 5G network in Greenwich is controlled by a small dedicated data center.

Currently, the two private networks are not connected to one another, but Bejina said that could be coming. “We could organize gateways to extend [the networks],” he said. “This is a feature that we will consider very strongly.”