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Over the past few years, there’s been no shortage of hype over 5G’s massive business implications, as hardware makers, carriers, and enterprises have pitched 5G networks as the enabler of “the fourth industrial revolution” or “industry 4.0” — too often without concrete examples of why 5G will matter. Today, Nokia announced one of the most intriguing industrial use cases yet: Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology is deploying a private industrial 5G network to further automate the underground harvesting of natural materials, setting the stage for what the latter company calls a “digital transformation of mining.”

Mining is a dangerous business, requiring people to enter caves and continuously remove parts of the ceilings, walls, and floors as they hunt for valuable resources. Sandvik and Nokia say that the 5G network will be used for two purposes: enabling deployment of reliable voice and video equipment in these “highly challenging” environments, and managing remote operation of machines “deep underground” from a surface control center. Initially, the machines will be guided using 4K video links, but in the future, robotic and fully autonomous operations will be possible.

A few details are critical to Sandvik’s 5G deployment, which is beginning at a 48-year-old test mine consisting of multiple kilometers of underground tunnels. The company has chosen to deploy Nokia’s 5G standalone network, which doesn’t rely on older 4G as a backbone, and therefore goes beyond fast downloads to offer faster upload speeds and lower latency. It’s also using Nokia’s Digital Automation Cloud, which supports industrial-grade security and reliability, as well as the edge computing needed for millisecond-level machine responsiveness.

Moreover, Sandvik isn’t starting from scratch with modern technology. While the 5G hardware is cutting edge, the mining company already has developed solutions for remote and autonomous operation of equipment, as well as tools to optimize underground hard rock mining. Bringing 5G to the Tampere, Finland-based test mine — near Nokia — will enable it to prototype next-generation solutions for customers around the world, enabling a larger-scale industrial transformation than one or two companies could deliver.

The Sandvik deal was revealed alongside Nokia’s announcement today that it’s now offering the first commercial 5G standalone private wireless networking solution to its global customers. Nokia says it has over 180 private wireless enterprise customers, over 30 of which are 5G, including Deutsche Bahn, Lufthansa Technik, and Toyota Production Engineering. Cellular industry standards organization 3GPP approved the 5G standalone specification earlier this month, paving the way for the first fully 5G network deployments to take place this year.

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