Photo by Trackunit
To move forward in the technology cycle and gain from the additional benefits available, new cellular technology must be introduced.

Sunsetting 3G: Infrastructure Evolution meets a Global Shortage in Construction Equipment

Dec. 17, 2021

By  Soeren Brogaard

Henry Ford II said, “obsolescence is the very hallmark of progress.” It’s hard to believe that a little more than 20 years after its introduction, 3G is about to be discontinued. Launched in the glow of the dotcom boom to meet the demand for mobile internet, the technology drove the development of a new generation of smart phones as well as a tipping point in communications when mobile subscriptions eclipsed fixed line telephone networks in 2002.

But we live in an age of innovation. Today, 3G has been superseded not once, but twice. To say that its presence is somewhat anachronistic is the sort of statement you’d expect to be made about an arcane technology which supports some vital legacy service or equipment. 4G is in widespread use; 5G holds out the offer of a brave new world of emerging applications, high bandwidth, and low latency digital communications, and best of all, change – the thing that keeps the commercial plates spinning.

Why is 3G sunsetting a challenge for construction?

A couple of years ago I commented upon a McKinsey blog that called out construction for its slow adoption of digitalization opportunities. But since then, and especially in the light of the pandemic, the transformation of the industry has accelerated. Anecdotally, and based upon Trackunit conversations with OEMs, construction companies, contractors and rental equipment providers, there’s been real progress in the use of technology to solve the major challenge facing our sector and eliminate downtime.

But there’s a “but” to all of this: much of the technology in use and delivering value today depends on data harvested using 3G devices attached to or embedded in construction machines and equipment. Very soon the network infrastructure which enables this communication will be re-purposed for 5G or removed if it cannot be made to fit the requirements of this all-new super-fast communications highway.

One of the key reasons carriers need to decommission their 3G networks is to free up that segment of the wireless spectrum. When they switch off the older technology (3G) their carrier license allows the carrier to use that airway space for the newer signal types such as 4G and 5G. To move forward in the technology cycle and gain from the additional benefits available, new cellular technology must be introduced. The consequence is that 3G technology and associated devices are ejected as part of the upgrade process.

At the same time, the market is experiencing a global shortage of new machinery and equipment. This has been caused by ubiquitous supply chain issues from the sourcing of raw materials and fabrication of silicon chips to the manufacture of sub-systems, systems and, most importantly, finished products. Shortcomings in the supply chain, which cannot be fixed at a stroke, mean that next generation machines cannot simply be lifted and dropped into the spaces left by redundant equipment.

What’s more, larger machines have been built for much longer lifecycles, and it’s highly unlikely either owners or rental companies will want to replace them until their ROI is fully extracted.

What options are available for the continued digitalization of construction?

In a word, retrofit. Retrofitting fits very well not just with the need to upgrade communications technology, but also with the desire to introduce more sustainable practices to the worksite. Extending the useful lifecycle of equipment goes towards the circular economy, and circularity is an important tenet of sustainability.

From the point of view of all stakeholders, retrofitting is a good deal less capital intensive than replacements, less intrusive and probably a much faster and greener route to ensuring ongoing operations and continued data feeds than any alternative.

The most straightforward process would be replacing equipment-mounted, after-market, 3G devices with 5G devices. In many cases this will be a relatively simple process of removing the 3G device and connecting the new device depending on the sophistication of the data acquisition method. Furthermore, industry standard connectivity should allow most vehicles and equipment to be upgraded to 5G capabilities relatively easily. OEM embedded systems may require a more advanced solution, although many OEMs are working with companies such as Trackunit to define the optimum method of continued data connectivity, to ensure their customers are not left stranded when 3G is switched off.

A four-step process to retrofit readiness

This machine life extension provides the platform to retrofit the latest wireless monitoring devices utilizing 5G networks to capture a greater range of customer machine-oriented data. Ensuring that all rental and construction organizations benefit from this opportunity, a clear process to undertake is a simple 4-step migration plan:

  1. Inventory Survey – understand the totality of the organization’s vehicle situation with end of life and newer machines to determine the organization’s exact migration requirements. For example, are you targeting 4G LTE or full 5G capability?
  2. Review and evaluate the target devices with the machines to be retrofitted. Selecting the devices and platform is an essential choice in your organization’s next steps in utilizing the captured data to generate business value.
  3. Transition and Timescale, replacement scheduling and personnel training requirements. Speed is essential and a planned transition will reduce unforeseen incidents.
  4. Systems Deployment, ensure devices and technicians are in the right place at the right time. Confirm connectivity availability, testing, authorization, and data capture conforms to the agreed requirements.

This increase in machine operational information can then be utilized to increase the organization’s understanding of machine use, operator behavior, and sustainability metrics, as well as provide the data that contributes to process change, and more effective planning and operations on site, in transit and in the rental yards.

Working together, OEMs, construction companies and telematic suppliers can scale their capabilities appropriately as the new machines eventually begin to be delivered and data volumes grow. This next era in construction data communications with digital analytics of critical asset data will help drive a range of process alignments, provide more data, and will positively impact top line growth.

Soeren Brogaard is CEO of Trackunit.